Nationals Have the Final Say

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 27, 2007

PHILADELPHIA, July 26 -- When little boys lie down and drift off, they may dream of their major league debuts. They may place themselves on the mound at a place such as Citizens Bank Park, a sellout crowd on hand, their entire family in the stands. They may even envision getting in a spot of trouble, then extracting themselves from it, showing their new teammates they belong.

John Lannan was in that position Thursday afternoon, and in none of his dreams or nightmares could he have imagined what transpired. The 22-year-old started the Washington Nationals' 7-6 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies -- a win supplied by the bat of another 22-year-old, Jesus Flores, whose three-run, eighth-inning homer was the difference.

That Lannan wasn't around for Flores's heroics wasn't surprising, because the Nationals couldn't have expected a dominant outing from a lefty who began the season at Class A Potomac. But the manner in which he departed was stunning. With one out in the fifth inning of a game the Nationals trailed 3-2, he hit Phillies second baseman Chase Utley with a fastball up-and-in -- a ball that, it was revealed after the game, broke a bone in Utley's hand. He then followed by hitting first baseman Ryan Howard -- who had homered in his previous at-bat -- with another fastball in much the same spot.

Home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt didn't hesitate. He stepped from behind the plate and waved his arm, ejecting Lannan. The rookie, less than two hours into his major league career, shrugged his shoulder briefly, are-you-kidding-me body language.

In two breaths afterward, Lannan summed up the day. "This has been a dream for me," he said. And moments later, speaking of the ejection, he said, "That never crossed my mind."

Lannan, who was struggling with his control in the fifth, said he was trying to go inside with both two-seam fastballs.

"I wasn't throwing at anybody," Lannan said. "I was just trying to make good pitches, and it got away from me."

According to baseball historian David Vincent, Lannan is just the fifth player ever ejected in his first major league game. The development also led to the first ejection of the year for Manager Manny Acta. Though he was a long way off from a Lou Piniella-style hat-tossing, dirt-kicking argument, Acta said he needed to get a point across to Wendelstedt.

"I see absolutely no reason for a kid making his major league debut, started the year in A ball, 3-2 game . . . hit the first guy on an 0-2 count, and then miss up-and-in to Howard to get thrown out of the game just because he hit a home run in his at-bat before," Acta said. The manager added that when the Nationals were arguing balls and strikes from the dugout earlier in the game, Wendelstedt had turned and yelled back that Lannan was "all over the place."

But Howard's homer off Lannan, Wendelstedt said, was precisely the reason he ejected Lannan. Howard, who beat the Nationals with a two-run shot in the 14th inning on Wednesday, has a habit of watching his no-doubters, and when he ripped the two-run blast with two outs in the third, he took a few slow strides as the ball sailed to center. So when Lannan hit Howard with the first pitch of the at-bat in the fifth, Wendelstedt said, "My hands are kind of tied."

Speaking to a pool reporter, the umpire said that Major League Baseball's stricter guidelines regarding beanballs, instituted several seasons ago, call such at-bats following homers "red flag."

"It was just a bad time for him to lose his control," Wendelstedt said. "I can't read his mind. I don't know whether he did it intentionally or not."

It didn't matter. Lannan was gone, and so was Acta -- who does not believe in ejections for the manager.

"That's a battle that you're never going to win," Acta said. "I didn't win it. I'm not a believer in rallying the troops or anything."

So even with a bullpen that was gassed from the previous night's marathon, the Nationals pressed forward. Chris Schroder gave up a two-run single to Pat Burrell to close the book on Lannan -- 4 1/3 innings, six hits, four earned runs -- and the Phillies led, 5-2.

But given the way the Nationals lost Wednesday's game -- not only on Howard's homer, but on Jimmy Rollins's triple-and-an-error game-tying run in the bottom of the ninth -- they needed to sneak out of town with at least one victory. They got two runs back on Felipe Lopez's single in the seventh to pull within 5-4. And then, the shaky Phillies bullpen -- with some help from some shaky defense -- collapsed.

Ryan Zimmerman opened the top of the eighth by reaching on an error by third baseman Wes Helms. After a fielder's choice and a walk put runners at first and second, lefty Mike Zagurski came on to replace Jose Mesa. He got a fly ball from Ryan Church. But with two outs, he couldn't get Flores. He came with a first-pitch change-up, and Flores -- playing only because starter Brian Schneider caught all 14 innings the night before -- crushed it, the second homer of his career -- but not his first big hit.

"A kid who played in A ball last year, as a backup up here playing once a week has just done a tremendous job for us," Acta said. "Can't say enough about him."

Leading 7-5, the Nationals still had to survive Chad Cordero's normal nail-biting ninth, one in which Philadelphia scored one run and had runners at first and third with two outs. But Cordero got Abraham Nuñez to ground out to second.

The team celebrated on the field. In the clubhouse, Acta and Lannan could celebrate, oddly, by themselves.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company