By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 12, 2007
PHOENIX, Aug. 11 -- For a hitter facing Brandon Webb, there is little mystery about what's coming, only about where it's going. The Arizona Diamondbacks' right-hander has built a career around his sinking, two-seam fastball. Stand in the box, dig into the dirt, watch the windup -- and just try to hit it.
"It's there, and then you blink," Washington Nationals catcher Brian Schneider said, "and it's gone."
At this point in the season, matching Webb frame for frame is nearly impossible. Yet in the course of what could have been a demoralizing 1-0 loss to the Diamondbacks on Saturday night -- a shutout in which Webb allowed five hits, struck out 10 and extended his scoreless innings streak to an ungodly 33 -- the Nationals came up with a discovery of their own.
Left-hander John Lannan doesn't have Webb's Cy Young Award on his résumé, nor does he have a signature pitch that baffles major leaguers who know it's coming. Rather, in his fourth major league start, he was just trying to find a comfort level, a quest that seemed fulfilled after a seven-inning, one-run performance that would have been good enough to win had most any other pitcher opposed him.
Lannan, 22, began this year at Class A Potomac. The realistic hope was to rise to Class AA Harrisburg by the end of the season, making steady progress to the majors. But in the last two weeks, Lannan has made his major league debut at Philadelphia -- getting ejected and breaking the hand of Phillies second baseman Chase Utley -- won his first major league decision, shut down Barry Bonds when he sat at 755 home runs and gone toe-to-toe against the hottest pitcher in the game.
"I learned a lot about myself," Lannan said, "and how I handle certain situations."
The Nationals, too, have learned. They entered the year hoping 24-year-old lefty Matt Chico, who had never before pitched above Class AA, could handle a season in which he would potentially be pummeled. Now, it appears that Lannan is on the way to passing Chico -- who has struggled to a 6.25 ERA since the all-star break -- in the organizational hierarchy.
"I'm very proud," Manager Manny Acta said. "Outstanding. I've seen Webb do that over and over and over. But for this kid, just a couple of months removed from 'A' ball to match him up, to go out there and give up a run in seven innings -- just a remarkable performance by this kid."
Put Webb's performance aside for a moment, and contrast the work by the Nationals' two rookie lefties over the past two nights. On Friday, in the process of walking six men in just five innings, Chico threw his 100th pitch in the fifth inning, barely surviving. Lannan, meantime, started his outing Saturday with a six-pitch first inning, and by the time he was lifted for a pinch hitter in the top of the eighth, he had thrown just 94.
Though the line -- seven innings, one run -- was the same as his outing last Monday in San Francisco, when he boldly struck out Bonds with a 3-2 curveball in the seventh, Lannan was clearly better Saturday night. He had much better command with both his fastballs -- a two-seamer and four-seamer -- and that allowed him to better set up his breaking pitches.
"Every level I've been at, it's just taken me a couple starts just to get, I guess, comfortable out there," Lannan said. "This start I felt a little more comfortable. Just keep on improving, that's the main thing right now."
If he could have improved slightly Saturday, he might have matched Webb. The game's lone run came in the fourth, when Eric Byrnes got the first hit off Lannan, a one-out single. After Conor Jackson lined out, Diamondbacks rookie Justin Upton -- a former No. 1 overall pick playing just his ninth major league game -- lined a 3-1 sinker to the gap in right-center, a triple that easily scored Byrnes.
Somehow, with Webb on the mound, that one run felt like three touchdowns. The Nationals' best-hit ball came off the bat of Ryan Church in the fourth, a double to the left-center field gap. But they never again placed a runner in scoring position, and 21 of the 27 outs Webb recorded were either grounders or strikeouts.
"It is deceiving," said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who went 0 for 4. "It looks like a good pitch to hit, and then you ground out to the shortstop."
When they were growing up in Kentucky, Nationals right fielder Austin Kearns faced Webb. That was before he threw the sinker, relying instead on a four-seam fastball and a curve. Kearns, then, was a first-round pick, and Webb went to the University of Kentucky.
"He was way, way different," Kearns said.
Right now, he is nearly unhittable. As the Diamondbacks have won 17 of their last 20, Webb has been the anchor. In that stretch, he has won each of his four starts and hasn't allowed a run, walking six and striking out 29.
"He's got a few things going for him," Kearns said.
The Nationals, too, might have something going for themselves with Lannan. Four starts in, he has a 3.00 ERA. Not Webb, but not bad.