Nats Let One Slip Away
Tuesday, August 7, 2007; 2:30 AM
SAN FRANCISCO, Aug. 6 -- John Lannan's season began in Woodbridge, Va., Class A ball, 30 minutes from Washington, light years from the majors. Yet Monday night, when he threw the pitch that would determine whether he would advance or delay history, flash bulbs popped in every corner of AT&T Park.
The cameras were focused on Barry Bonds, but the 22-year-old Lannan stole his moment. With two outs in the eighth inning of a tie game, the Washington Nationals' rookie left-hander threw a 3-2 curveball that mystified the San Francisco Giants left fielder, and he flailed through it.
Had the Nationals not blown a 10th-inning lead -- one provided by Dmitri Young's homer -- that one pitch would have become the signature moment of the Nationals' seventh straight win. As it was, the Giants rallied for the tying run off closer Chad Cordero in the 10th, then won it on Randy Winn's single off Luis Ayala in the 11th, a disheartening 3-2 loss that ended the Nationals' six-game winning streak.
Still, even with the Nationals' collapse, the night was very much about Bonds -- on the verge of the all-time home run mark -- and Lannan, making his third major league start. Lannan wasn't even in major league spring training camp, but in four plate appearances Monday night, Bonds popped up, walked, grounded into a double play and struck out. The record will wait for at least one more day.
"A tremendous job," Nationals Manager Manny Acta said.
Never was Lannan -- who struggled with his command in his seven-inning, one-run performance -- more tremendous than in Bonds's last at-bat, with the teams tied 1-1 in the seventh, a runner on first and two outs. Even with veteran lefty Ray King warmed up in the bullpen, Acta stuck with Lannan, who is just more than half of Bonds's 43 years.
"Why not," Acta said. "He was throwing the ball good. It's left-left, two outs. I thought that he pitched him well the whole game. I thought 'that would be the end of his day anyways, so why not do it that way.'"
When Lannan fell behind Bonds 2-0, the crowd booed, just as it had booed every one of Lannan's misses to their hero. They came to the park Monday to see Bonds hit, to see a record set, not to see him pitched around.
Lannan, though, had no intention of avoiding Bonds, record or no record. He threw an 89-mph fastball at the knees for strike one, then missed with another fastball low and away. The 3-1 pitch, though, sent ripples through the crowd for one of the few times all evening. Lannan came with a fastball, and Bonds swung mightily, his entire body behind it. He couldn't catch up, and the swing-and-miss made the count full.
"Fortunately he swung through the 3-1 pitch," Lannan said, "and it set up the curveball."
Here, then, was the moment. Lannan made it his. He threw a 77-mph curve low and away, and Bonds swung through it. Almost before Bonds had completed his swing, Lannan pumped his fist and skipped once, then strode to the dugout. His seven-inning, one-run night was complete -- as was that of Bonds, who was lifted for a defensive replacement. Someone else, not Lannan, would be the victim for 756, and Lannan will be able to tell the tale of how he avoided such a fate.
"Here's a guy making his third start," King said, "and he went toe-to-toe with Barry."
When Lannan arrived just after 3:15 p.m. Monday, he was known nationally for one reason. In his first major league start, July 26 in Philadelphia, he hit Phillies second baseman Chase Utley and first baseman Ryan Howard with consecutive fastballs, and was ejected. More infamy: The pitch to Utley broke a bone in his hand, and he is out for about a month.
The contrast between hitter and pitcher could hardly have been more stark. When Bonds was drafted out of Arizona State in 1985 by the Pittsburgh Pirates, Lannan was three months shy of his first birthday.
But for someone with those credentials -- or, in fact, lack thereof -- Acta said he felt comfortable with Lannan on the mound.
"He's a pretty loose and relaxed kid," Acta said. "The first day, yes, he was a little bit overwhelmed, his first day in the big leagues. Other than that, he's handled everything very good. He's got a good sense of humor, and just really acted for the last week like he belongs."
So with the park still filling up, Lannan's first pitch to leadoff man Rajai Davis was a ball. Before he threw another pitch, he was called for another ball because -- with the night chill settling in -- he put his hand to his mouth when he was on the rubber, a violation. He walked Davis without throwing him a strike.
"At times," Lannan said. "But I was just trying to keep my composure and follow the game plan, just trying to keep the team in it."
After an infield single and would-be base stealer thrown out by catcher Brian Schneider, Lannan walked Winn. With Bonds coming to the plate for the first time, there was one out and runners at the corners.
And when he got up, the entire crowd stood. The flashes went off, and Lannan stepped off the rubber, advice King had given him. "He can't start until you do," King told him.
Lannan came with a 90-mph fastball for a strike. With low chants of "Bar-ry! Bar-ry!" beginning to swirl around the park, Lannan threw a curveball out of the strike zone.
The next two pitches were telling. At 1-1, Lannan threw a fastball on the inside part of the plate. In his heyday, Bonds would have crushed the pitch. Monday, he took it. Lannan then threw a curveball that stayed up in the strike zone. Bonds took a healthy cut, but he lofted it meekly into foul territory, where third baseman Ryan Zimmerman tracked it down. The first batter Lannan retired in his third major league start: Barry Bonds, on the verge of the record.
When Bonds came up again in the third, Lannan had allowed a leadoff single to Winn, and he walked Bonds on a 3-1 pitch. When Winn led off with a single in the fifth, Bonds followed by grounding a 2-0 pitch into the Nationals' shift, a play that turned into a 6-5-3 double play turned by Zimmerman at second.
And when Young drilled an 0-2 pitch from reliever Scott Atchison just inside the right-field foul pole in the 10th, the Nationals -- not Bonds -- had the homer they needed. But Cordero allowed two one-out singles in the 10th, the second a dribbling grounder up the middle from Mark Sweeney that put runners at the corners. Bengie Molina followed with a grounder -- not hard enough for a double play -- and Winn scored the tying run.
That was just an inning before King allowed Ryan Klesko a leadoff double, then loaded the bases with an intentional walk and a hit batter. "Didn't get the job done," he said.
Neither did Bonds. Tuesday, Lannan can relax. Bonds will go for it again.