Lannan rises to the occasion

Lannan rises to the occasion
July 22, 2012, 4:16 am
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For more than four seasons, he would take the mound every fifth day for the Nationals, the most reliable member of a typically unreliable starting rotation. He pitched well most nights, didn't pitch well every once in a while, and compiled stats that suggested he was worthy of a spot at the back end of a big-league rotation.

But through it all, through 128 starts with the Nationals from 2007-11, John Lannan never once pitched in a truly significant baseball game.

"I mean, I've never been on a first-place team," he said. "And I've never been in a game where it really meant something."

So when the opportunity finally presented itself Saturday night, Lannan decided he might as well make the most of it.

"That's all I wanted to do: Come in, and in any way I could help the team," he said.

Lannan did more than just help his team. With seven sparkling innings against the Braves, the left-hander carried his team to a much-needed, 5-2 victory that snapped a three-game losing streak, prevented Atlanta from sweeping a doubleheader and prevented the Nationals' ever-shrinking lead from dropping to 12-game and causing some actual panic on South Capitol Street.

No, instead of waking up Sunday morning and facing an all-or-nothing showdown for first place in the NL East, the Nationals will remain 2 12 games up on the Braves, eased by the knowledge they'll continue to hold the same top spot they've held in the division for two full months now.

"I think most of the guys in this locker room felt like it was a must-win tonight," closer Tyler Clippard said. "We needed to get one. If they took three from us right away, it would have been a pretty big blow."

It wasn't surprising that the Nationals righted themselves behind a dominant performance from a member of the majors' best rotation. It was, however, surprising that the pitcher who did it hadn't been a member of that rotation the previous 92 games ... and won't be a member of that rotation for Game No. 94.

Exiled to Syracuse on the final day of spring training despite his tenure in the organization and his 5 million salary, Lannan spent the last 3 12 months toiling away as a Class AAA pitcher, putting up less-than-spectacular numbers (6-9, 4.89 ERA) and not getting a chance to be a part of the first true pennant race in D.C. in three generations.

The Nationals, though, told Lannan all along they would need his services at some point, and the opportunity arose with this day-night doubleheader. Taking advantage of a new MLB rule that allows teams to add a 26th player only for twinbills, Lannan was recalled for one day and handed the ball for Saturday's nightcap.

"I never really thought about it. I just went down there and knew I needed to do my work," said Lannan, who did formally request a trade after his demotion. "The first couple starts were rough, but this day didn't really cross my mind until I kind of saw it line up and I realized: 'Hey, I might have a shot to start that game.'"

He watched Game 1 of the doubleheader from the clubhouse, as his teammates failed to score a run off Ben Sheets or two Braves relievers during a frustrating, 4-0 loss that came mere hours after they had blown a nine-run lead and suffered a soul-crushing, 11-10 loss late Friday night.

Now, Lannan was being given the ball for arguably the most important game of the Nationals' season to date. And the eight guys who took the field with him were confident in the 27-year-old's ability to rise to the occasion.

"I mean, I honestly couldn't stop smiling when I saw him on the mound," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "I knew he was hungry for it."

Perhaps too hungry, because all the emotion of the moment seemed to get the best of Lannan during a troublesome first inning in which the Braves scored two runs and had five batters reach base.

Once he overcame that hiccup, though, Lannan settled in and got down to business. He started throwing more strikes (47 of his last 63 pitches), started inducing more groundballs (11 of his last 18 outs) and started getting stronger and stronger as each inning passed.

And thanks to some well-executed at-bats in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings, the Nationals plated the three runs they needed to leave Lannan in line for the win.

"He definitely did a good job to keep us in the game, and we scored a couple runs for him," said Roger Bernadina, whose RBI single (his fifth hit of the day) drove in the go-ahead run.

As he summoned his bullpen to pitch the night's final two innings, manager Davey Johnson put his arms on Lannan's shoulders and told the lefty: "Love ya, man."

It was a strikingly different conversation than the last one the two had in that dugout, the one on April 3 in which Johnson informed the pitcher he was being optioned to the minors.

"It was the toughest thing I had to do this year, to tell him we were going to option him out," Johnson said. "But, you know, when I talked to him 3-4 days ago and said he was coming up, I said: 'I'm glad to be able to get you back here, at least for one game.' He said: 'I can't wait to help the ballclub.' That was his approach. I said: 'I'm sure you will.' Boy, what a great story."

A story whose conclusion remains unknown. Lannan will be back on a flight Sunday morning to Syracuse, a minor leaguer once again.

But he feels reasonable sure he'll return before this season is over, and Johnson all but said as much after Saturday's game, suggesting Lannan will be recalled in September to take the rotation spot that will open after Stephen Strasburg is shut down.

The way things are going, it seems a given Lannan will be asked to pitch even bigger games for the pennant-chasing Nationals than he did on Saturday.

But before that happens, he'll have to return to watching from afar, rooting for his teammates from hundreds of miles and one giant step down in competition, biding his time until the opportunity arises again.

"I've been through a lot with these guys, and I do feel part of it," he said. "But the game goes on. If I'm here or not, these guys are still going to bust their butts. I know they're thinking about me, and I'm thinking about them. And hopefully, we can play together in September."