"John's my guy. I like John. And John can pitch. He led our club last year in wins." -- Davey Johnson on John Lannan, March 26
When Davey Johnson made that pronouncement during the final week of spring training, announcing John Lannan would open the season as the Nationals' No. 5 starter, little did he or anyone else know how the next six months would unfold.
One week later, of course, Johnson informed Lannan he would be opening the season in Syracuse, not Washington, a surprise demotion that prompted the left-hander to request a trade.
Six months later, Lannan remains a National. After spending the majority of the season at Class AAA, he has been back in the big leagues since Sept. 1, reinserted into the rotation after Stephen Strasburg was shut down.
And now, he'll be asked to pitch the Nationals to the NL East title.
Unable to clinch the division over the weekend in St. Louis, the Nationals return home for their final series of the regular season, needing to beat the Phillies just once to set off a champagne celebration on South Capitol Street. And wouldn't you know the man Johnson will hand the ball to tonight is none other than John Lannan.
The 28-year-old lefty has already started (and won) some of the most important games of the Nationals' season. Summoned from Syracuse to pitch the second half of a July 21 doubleheader against a Braves team that had trimmed its deficit in the NL East to 1 12 games, he tossed seven strong innings to earn the victory and start a six-game Nationals winning streak.
Lannan returned two weeks later for another doubleheader, this time against the Marlins, and again notched a quality start en route to another win.
He has since made three more starts over the last three weeks, taking over Strasburg's rotation spot and tossing 5 23 scoreless innings against the Mets before then getting roughed up by the Dodgers in a no-decision.
The July win over the Braves was one of the Nationals' most important of the season, but last week's win in Philadelphia might have been the most important of Lannan's season. Tortured by the Phillies throughout his career, he marched into Citizens Bank Park and allowed two runs over 5 23 innings to improve to 4-0 and exorcise one of his biggest demons.
That game, more than any other, leaves the Nationals feeling good about their chances tonight with Lannan back on the mound against the Phillies.
"We have all the confidence in the world," said fellow lefty Ross Detwiler, who suffered yesterday's loss to the Cardinals. "What is he, 4-0? There you go. He threw against them last week and did really well. He got us a huge win after I lost the game, and he came back and did what he needed to do to get the win."
Lannan, who declined to be interviewed following yesterday's game, still faces an uncertain future. He's unlikely to be included on the Nationals' postseason roster, barring a late turn of events. And he might not be tendered a contract over the winter, left to sign with another club after spending all of his eight professional seasons in the Nationals organization.
None of that, though, matters to him right now. He's often talked about his ability to get through this difficult season by focusing solely on the task immediately before him, not worrying about what would be next and never assuming anything would be handed to him.
Well, tonight, Lannan will be handed the ball for the most important game of his life and potentially the most significant game in Nationals history.
Few could have foreseen things playing out like this. But there is a certain poetic symmetry to it all. With a chance to clinch their first-ever division title, the Nationals will turn not to Strasburg or Gio Gonzalez or Jordan Zimmerman or Edwin Jackson or Ross Detwiler. They'll turn to a familiar face who, as it turns out, has perhaps had the confidence of his manager all along.
As Johnson said way back on March 26: "John's my guy."