WASHINGTON - He enters a game with his cap pulled low over his eyes, like a Western gunslinger headed to a duel.
When he records the third out, Washington Nationals closer Chad Cordero goes into mini-spasms of joy. He'll punch his glove at his heart and pirouette for the home fans. He and teammate Esteban Loaiza will pretend to shoot arrows into the air as Loaiza's tribute to Cordero, nicknamed "Chief."
To witness the antics of Cordero, who sometimes wears a black T-shirt off the field with the outline of a white skull, it's easy to imagine a pitcher in the eccentric mold of past relievers such as Al Hrabosky or Mitch Williams.
But the team's secret - which might surprise opposing hitters - is that the 23-year-old is as calm and affable as a young closer could possibly be. "He's really shy," Loaiza says. And steady. In yesterday's game - a 7-5 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates - Cordero notched his 15th save in June, tying a major league record for saves in a month set by John Wetteland in 1996 and Lee Smith in 1993.
Cordero's consistency is a big reason the first-place Nationals have made a living winning close games. Twenty-two of Washington's 48 games since early May have been decided by a single run, and the Nationals have won 17 of the games. Cordero's 28 saves lead the majors, and he has converted a franchise-record 25 consecutive save chances.
Cordero's end-of-game histrionics - he was at it again yesterday - have become the signature for Washington victories, particularly at home where the club has won 22 of its past 25 games. The team also set a franchise record with 20 wins in June.
He insists his theatrics aren't about being showy. Rather than trying to embarrass opposing hitters, Cordero is like a shaken soda bottle that has just been uncorked. He says he's just letting off steam.
"I kind of hold it in until the last out because that's the best part, getting that win for the team," Cordero says. "So that's when I let it all out."
In the clubhouse, Cordero is soft-spoken. On the mound, he's Zen-like focused. It's as if his low-slung cap blocks out everything but the task at hand.
He's not overpowering in appearance or result, but rarely puts balls in the middle of the plate and has been trying to mix up his pitches by throwing more changeups. "Location with this kid is unbelievable," Nationals manager Frank Robinson says. "He's just a cool customer, unflappable. Even in tough ballgames he can still make his pitches."
Cordero has had plenty of tough ballgames.
Take, for example, the Angels game two weeks ago when Cordero entered in the ninth with a 1-0 lead and loaded the bases with no outs. He got out of it unscathed.
"I've loaded the bases with no outs. I've come in and got two quick outs and then loaded the bases," Cordero says. "All those situations early on, that's helped me," says the southern California native, who is of Mexican heritage but says he has "a little bit of Cherokee in me." The pitcher is just two seasons removed from playing in the College World Series for Cal State-Fullerton.
Cordero had seemed more dominant of late, finishing games without being threatened.
Yesterday, though, he was back to his old self. After the Nationals watched a 6-0 lead evaporate, Cordero entered in the ninth with a 7-5 lead and allowed runners to reach second and third with nobody out.
Said Robinson, rubbing his hands through his hair afterward: "I thought he had gotten over that in his last three or four outings."
But Cordero wasn't fazed. "Basically, I'm kind of used to it. I've been through it so many times," he says.
Catcher Brian Schneider came to the mound in the midst of the jam and said he told Cordero: "We've gotten out of these situations before. Stop screwing around. Let's get out of here."
Cordero got two outs, then walked Pittsburgh RBI leader Daryle Ward intentionally to load the bases before getting Ryan Doumit on a fly to right.
As the game ended, Cordero chest-bumped Schneider, then tipped his cap to the fans on his way to the dugout.
It had appeared early in the game that Cordero wouldn't be needed.
Trailing 1-0, the Pirates surrendered three runs in the second, all with two outs, and lost manager Lloyd McClendon. After starting pitcher Kip Wells (5-8) walked the bases loaded, McClendon got into a shouting match with home plate umpire Chris Guccione over balls and strikes and was ejected.
But the Pirates battled back, sending Cordero into the game for the third straight day.
Cordero was asked after the game whether he's in the same class with Wetteland and Smith.
"No, no," said Cordero, who had 14 saves last year. "They're a lot better than I am."
That's typical, according to Loaiza, who says his friend doesn't always look or act like the big-time closer he has become.
"You see him on the street and he doesn't look like a professional athlete with that body and those crooked feet," Loaiza said.
NOTE: The Nationals placed injured outfielder Ryan Church (shoulder) on the 15-day disabled list and said they would recall relief pitcher Joey Eischen from the DL before this weekend's series against the Chicago Cubs.