After Big First, Nationals Outlast Houston

Nook Logan scores the first of the Nationals' five first-inning runs, sliding past Astros catcher Eric Munson. Logan scored from first base on Ryan Zimmerman's double.
Nook Logan scores the first of the Nationals' five first-inning runs, sliding past Astros catcher Eric Munson. Logan scored from first base on Ryan Zimmerman's double. (By Pat Sullivan -- Associated Press)

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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 25, 2007

HOUSTON -- Reprinted from yesterday's late editions

What started out easy ended up being hard, because John Lannan had little idea where his fastball was going and Chad Cordero allowed a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth, closing what had been a six-run lead for the Washington Nationals to a single run. But in the end Thursday night, the Nationals headed to the airport with a 7-6 victory over the Houston Astros, a win that made it three out of four at Minute Maid Park.

Five runs in the first? That was more than the Nationals had scored all year, but it doesn't mean much at Minute Maid, where the left field fence is just 315 feet away. It was there that Astros cleanup hitter Carlos Lee hit a pair of homers -- the first a two-run fly ball off Lannan, the second a two-run line drive off of Cordero.

"I'm glad we had that big inning," Manager Manny Acta said, "because at the end it got interesting."

Which is what the Nationals have been for much of the season. The series kicked off a 10-game road trip -- one that continues Friday in Colorado and then finishes next week in Los Angeles against the Dodgers -- in fine fashion. Right fielder Austin Kearns went 3 for 4 and hit one of three consecutive RBI doubles in the first -- joining Ryan Zimmerman and Dmitri Young -- and Ronnie Belliard added a two-run homer.

All this came against the only pitcher on the Astros staff with less experience than the 22-year-old Lannan, rookie Juan Gutierrez, who was making his first big league start. He gave up 11 hits and six runs in four innings.

"We took some good swings against him," Belliard said.

That cushion allowed Lannan to earn his second major league win. For a prospect who began the year in Class A, that's no small accomplishment. But Thursday began the interesting end to Lannan's season. His outing was far from polished, five innings in which he allowed three runs and walked five. How shaky was the command of his fastball? Half of them were balls.

"I struggled hitting my spots," he said. "Struggled throwing fastballs for strikes. Walked too many guys."

Simple explanation. He won't, however, have too many more chances to improve on that performance. Because Lannan is, essentially, a minor leaguer going through a carefully planned development process, the Nationals will be cautious with him. Since reaching the majors July 26, he is 2-2 with a 4.15 ERA. But his performance, at this point in the season, isn't nearly as relevant as his workload.

Lannan's outing Thursday gives him a total of 169 1/3 innings pitched this year combined from Class A to the majors. In 2005, the year he was drafted in the 11th round out of Siena College, he threw 145 innings in college and professional ball. Last year, he pitched 138 innings for Class A Savannah.

Now, he has all but reached his limit for this season, and Acta said the club plans for him to have but one more start.

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