Washington Nationals: After a season in exile, John Lannan could make a major impact

August 31, 2012

The disparity between his old life and the one he had most of this season most forcefully struck John Lannan over two days in late July. On a Saturday night, the Washington Nationals summoned him to pitch the second game of a doubleheader. After he pitched seven stellar innings, teammates hugged him and doused him with Gatorade. Lannan answered questions from a scrum of reporters, gobbled a plate of food from the clubhouse cafeteria and lingered around old friends. Electricity pulsed through the room.

The next morning, he hopped a flight back to Syracuse. After the Class AAA Chiefs played, everyone dressed and went home. Lannan drove to the Uno Chicago Grill near his apartment. He chatted with the bartender and ate alone.

“It was so surreal,” Lannan said. “I was just pitching in the big leagues. And the next night, I’m watching ‘Sunday Night Baseball,’ and I’m sitting there eating a personal-size pizza. No one’s around. It puts things in perspective. That’s what I got: I got perspective.”

Now Lannan’s year in exile has ended. Before Friday’s game against the Cardinals, Manager Davey Johnson announced that Lannan would be called up on Saturday, which he was. When Stephen Strasburg reaches his prescribed innings limit, Lannan will replace him for a handful of starts. Strasburg’s impending shutdown has inspired endless opining, but the other end of the Nationals’ decision has received far less attention. It, too, was unprecedented.

Tuesday afternoon, Lannan sat in the visitors’ dugout of the Charlotte Knights’ ballpark and, for the first time, shared his extensive thoughts on his season. His year in Class AAA has tested him without changing him. It toughened him without embittering him. Lannan can laugh at parts of his experience and can cull positive moments. He cannot pretend he ever wants to endure another year like it.

“To be honest,” Lannan said, “there was mornings I woke up and I didn’t think it was real.”

‘I’ll never forget this’

In late winter, knowing they would cut their ace’s season short, the Nationals insured themselves by signing free agent Edwin Jackson. It gave them depth to handle Strasburg’s early end, but also crowded their rotation. At the end of spring, the Nationals had to jettison one of six capable starters.

Lannan twice had been the Nationals’ opening day starter. Only Ryan Zimmerman had spent more days in the Nationals’ clubhouse than Lannan. Over the previous four seasons, he had compiled a 4.00 ERA. He was healthy and making $5 million in 2012. Never before had a pitcher like that been shipped to the bushes. But never before had a team with an eye on contention planned to voluntarily end their best pitcher’s season early.

On the final day of spring training, the Nationals demoted Lannan. He was an established major leaguer, and he was headed to the minor leagues.

“I’m dealing with it better,” said Lannan, 27. “But I’ll never forget this. I don’t think 2012 is going to be the year that I look back and that’s going to be the definition of my career. I still have a lot more years to pitch. I’m healthy. I’ve some decent success in the big leagues. I just dealt with it better. I have a positive outlook toward it. I’m not going to let it get me down. This isn’t going to get me down. This is going to make me stronger.”

On the eve of opening day, one day after the Nationals chose Ross Detwiler over Lannan as their fifth starter, the shock had not worn off. He e-mailed local reporters detailing his request to be traded from the only organization for which he had ever played. He has made peace with General Manager Mike Rizzo, but he does not regret publicly asking for a trade.

“It happened. I got to live with it,” Lannan said. “It’s just one of those things where I thought at the time it was the best thing for me to do, because I was upset.”

Even as he stewed, Lannan respected the Nationals’ choice. As a player with less than three years of service time, Detwiler was making the league minimum, not quite $500,000. The Nationals still sent Lannan and his $5 million salary to Syracuse.

“They could have made a decision based on the amount of money they paid me,” Lannan said. “But they didn’t do that. They made a decision based on the fact that they thought Detwiler is better than me. So you got to look at it as — and it’s hard to say — they made a good move based on baseball standpoint instead of a business move. Even though I was on the short end of that stick, you got to kind of appreciate that decision.”

After the trade request, Lannan went to work. Pitching coach Steve McCatty recalled Lannan telling him over the phone, “Cat, you know I’m a professional. I’ll do my business.”

“He’s been nothing but professional,” Syracuse Manager Tony Beasley said. “He’s been a good teammate. He’s done his work. He hasn’t been a problem whatsoever. He’s accepted the fact that, ‘I’ve got to do my job.’ ”

Making adjustments

Lannan arrived at Syracuse angry, and the sparse crowds and rundown parks only soured his mood. The first batter he faced at Syracuse fell behind him, 0-2. Lannan beat him with a high fastball, but the late swing resulted in a blooper to right that plopped in for a single. Two more bleeders followed. The inning spiraled out of his control. “All right,” Lannan thought. “This is going to be awesome.”

Lannan’s progress cannot be measured in numbers. He went 9-11 with a 4.30 ERA at Syracuse, but McCatty said he ignores the statistics. As a sinkerball pitcher, Lannan thrives on putting the ball in play on the ground. With the potholed fields and substandard defenses at Class AAA, a successful formula for the majors can backfire.

“There were some starts where I came out feeling really good about the start, and I would give up six runs,” Lannan said. “You want to do well, but I couldn’t focus on results that much.”

Lately, just as his re-insertion into the Nationals’ rotation nears, Lannan’s fortunes have turned. He made an adjustment to his delivery with Syracuse pitching coach Greg Booker, standing taller as he strides toward the plate to create a greater downward angle. Lannan has thrown two consecutive shutouts. Thursday, Lannan struck out 10.

Lannan’s toughest adjustment came off the field. In December, Lannan married his longtime girlfriend, Maryanne. All spring, they planned on life in Washington. The demotion, so late in camp, blindsided both of them. The season was hard on him, harder on his wife.

“She was with me the whole year,” Lannan said. “They always say, it doesn’t get easier when you get married. That was so true this year. We did great. Under the circumstances, she knows how well I can do. I think she was a little more upset than I was.”

Lannan had never really known the minor leagues. He was drafted in 2005, and with a horrendous stable of pitchers in the organization, he rose fast. He made his major league debut in 2007. Aside from a two-month reset at Class AA in 2010, Lannan never went back.

‘It’s Triple-A, man’

Minor league baseball, in its glorious tackiness, does not allow players to pretend they are somewhere else. Between innings, Lannan watched fans compete to see who could fold cardboard into a pizza box. Another day, oversize inflatable dice tumbled from the stands, and if they matched a fan won cable for a month. “This could be a movie,” Lannan would think. “An ironic-as-hell baseball movie.”

Travel also provides a constant reminder of his status. Friday morning, the Chiefs would board the first available flight to Lehigh Valley International Airport out of Douglas International Airport in Charlotte. That night, they would play the IronPigs. After the game, they would board a bus immediately following the game and arrive home in Syracuse at 4 a.m. — 22 hours of travel interrupted by a baseball game.

“It’s Triple-A, man,” Lannan said. “You’re living like a gypsy.”

While he traversed the Eastern seaboard in buses, the Nationals thrived. He felt genuine joy for his old teammates, especially guys such as Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman who had been through bad times with him. But melancholy tinged his happiness. He absorbed two 100-loss seasons and helped them crawl out of the cellar. As the Nationals became a force, Lannan pitched in Louisville and Pawtucket and Toledo.

“It made it harder, honestly,” Lannan said. “I’ve worked so hard to win and help the team win. I said that every start: I just want to go help the team win. Sitting here, I’m happy for those guys. They’re playing their [tails] off. But I want to be part of it. I know that sounds selfish, but that’s why you play baseball, to win at the highest level.”

Lannan received two reprieves, when the Nationals called him up to pitch in doubleheaders. He won both games, pitching brilliantly. He loved every second.

“I felt a difference,” Lannan said. “It was crazy. I can’t explain, but I felt the attitude had changed completely from years past. It was awesome, and it’s contagious. It kind of fired me up a little bit.”

Lannan says he did not think once about returning in September. He made no plans this time. “I assumed in the beginning of the year,” he said. “Why would I do that again?”

Lannan was called up only two days before the end of Syracuse’s season. He gained a true appreciation for Class AAA, full of players wondering if they can make it back or if they’ll ever make it all. He made friends he cherishes — Jeff Mandel, Tanner Roark, Mark Teahen, Brett Carroll.

Tuesday, he played Ping-Pong on the clubhouse table. He trudged through sopping-wet grass and played catch in a rainstorm. Advertisements for the Hickory Tavern and Sunbelt Rentals hovered behind him on the outfield wall.

He walked back to the dugout, all chipped paint and splintered benches. Pat Corrales, a Nationals minor league instructor, was sitting there. Rain soaked Lannan’s shirt and matted his hair.

“I’m like a drowned rat,” Lannan said to him.

“Yeah,” Corrales replied. “But you got it done, John.”

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