Lannan came up from the minors and delivered seven dazzling innings when the Nationals needed them most. After 36 hours in which nothing went right, the Nationals salvaged a split of Saturday’s doubleheader at Nationals Park. After losing, 4-0, in Game 1, they edged the Braves, 5-2, in the nightcap and kept their lead in the National League East over the Braves at 2½ games.
“Most of the guys in this locker room felt like this was a must-win tonight,” said closer Tyler Clippard, who notched his 16th save. “We needed to get one. If they took three from us right away, it would have been a pretty big blow. John stepped up in a huge way.”
The Nationals have a chance Sunday, in the series finale, to stretch their lead back to 3½ games, right where it stood when the Braves came to town Friday. Their blown nine-run lead Friday night and a shutout loss at the hands of Ben Sheets on Saturday afternoon led to momentary panic. But Lannan hung tough after a ragged beginning and the Nationals cobbled together enough offense, capped by Roger Bernadina’s game-winning RBI single in the seventh inning, his fifth hit of the day after he came off the bench to replace Harper in center field.
The night ended with cheers from the sellout crowd. Harper came off the bench to an ovation in the eighth inning and rolled a single through the left side — then stole second base and scored on Danny Espinosa’s single, swollen left ankle and all.
Afterward, the Nationals optioned Lannan down to Class AAA Syracuse. He planned to fly back Sunday morning, back to cramped clubhouses and miniscule crowds, to a bleak stadium and sunflower shells on bus floors.
“I’ve been through a lot with these guys,” Lannan said. “I do feel a part of it. The game goes on, whether I’m here or not. I know that they’re thinking about me and I’m thinking about them.”
Music blared in the Nationals’ clubhouse and Lannan accepted congratulations, a far different vibe than after the team’s loss in Game 1. Sheets, making only his second start in two years, fooled the Nationals for six scoreless innings. They killed their own rallies with three double plays. Relievers Henry Rodriguez and Ryan Mattheus allowed three runs in two innings. They wasted Edwin Jackson’s gritty, seven-inning, nine-strikeout start. Their lead shrunk to 1½ games.
“It’s a frustrating game but we’re still in first place,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said between games. “Things could be worse.”