By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
ATLANTA, April 22 -- On a down day at the end of a decidedly down road trip, the Washington Nationals needed something, anything, about which they could smile as they headed for Washington and the longest homestand of the year. An already grim reality grew worse Tuesday afternoon, because their closer, Chad Cordero, is headed for an appointment with renowned orthopedist James Andrews to have his balky right shoulder examined, a development that could portend disaster for a club that owns baseball's worst record.
Enter John Lannan. The 23-year-old left-hander countered a man he watched in his childhood, Atlanta's John Smoltz, by pitching seven scoreless innings on the night Smoltz struck out the 3,000th batter of his 20-year career. That performance delivered a badly needed 6-0 victory for the Nationals on the day so many new questions arose about their most important reliever.
"Sure, we want to win every single night," Manager Manny Acta said. "But with the plan we have here, and what we're trying to accomplish here, an outing by this young man like that is worth three or four of those losses that I have suffered already."
Unfazed by a crowd that gave a thunderous and appreciative ovation for Smoltz when he struck out Felipe López in the top of the third -- the fourth of Smoltz's 10 strikeouts in seven innings -- Lannan backed up a six-inning, one-run outing last week in New York with the finest start of his major league career. When Smoltz recorded his first big league strikeout in 1988, Lannan was two months shy of his fourth birthday. Yet here he was, not just pitching against him, but beating him.
"It was really special," Lannan said. "I've watched him since I was a little kid. It was good to be a part of it."
Thus came the good news, the Nationals' third win in their last 18 games. But even on what would have been an overwhelmingly positive day heading into the 11-game homestand, there came a jarring turn of events. Cordero had pitched a scoreless inning in Monday's loss, and pronounced himself fine afterward.
But when he returned to his hotel room, he said he felt a "clicking" in his shoulder. "I wasn't really sure what it was," he said. By early afternoon, the Nationals had scheduled an appointment with Andrews for 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in Birmingham, Ala.
"My arm felt fine throwing," Cordero said. "This is just to kind of make sure nothing is hidden in the arm and kind of make sure everything is all right. If there is something wrong, then we'll hopefully be able to find it."
Should they find a major problem, the situation would be devastating for the Nationals, whose bullpen -- a strength of the club in each of the past three years -- has been a shambles in his absence. Setup man Jon Rauch has been forced into the closer's role, diminishing the team at two spots. The club, though, is trying to remain optimistic, even as Acta described himself as "very concerned."
"He's not in any pain," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "He just feels a 'click.' But that being said, he's not quite throwing like he normally throws. It makes sense to get another opinion -- although I do think on the mound he's been making progress."
Still, he is not his normal self. Cordero has gone through funks before, but never because of the velocity on his fastball, which generally sits between 89 and 91 mph. In a bizarre outing April 16 in New York, Cordero said he didn't have enough time to warm up, and his first fastball floated in at 76 mph. Even on that night, when he never exceeded 82 mph, Cordero said his arm felt fine.
After two decent outings in which his fastball eventually worked its way up to 87 mph, Acta was ready to re-insert Cordero into the closer's role, a prospect that had Cordero all but giddy. Thus, the clicking he felt late Monday night -- even if it's a minor setback -- was disturbing news.
"I'm getting kind of tired of it," Cordero said. "It's just the way it is sometimes. Every pitcher goes through this. Every pitcher gets hurt at one point in their career. This is just my time."
Cordero, 26, has been a constant since baseball returned to Washington, alternately bringing elation and angst -- sometimes on the same night -- in converting 113 of his 133 opportunities as a National. But this spring has been one of discontent for Cordero. Though he lost some weight in the offseason, he also lost some zip on his fastball, a concern of scouts who saw his Grapefruit League performances. After he felt a sharp pain in his arm while warming up Opening Night, he had tendinitis in his shoulder diagnosed, and he was placed on the disabled list for the first time in his career.
Now, the concern is at a new level, though Bowden said: "A click can be normal. A lot of pitchers have it. He's never had it before. So let's check it out and make sure he's okay."
Lannan, for now, is more than okay. He showed again Tuesday that when he can command his fastball, he can handle any situation. "He stays calm, stays cool," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. Even provided with the narrowest margin -- Willie Harris's RBI double off Smoltz in the second was the game's lone run until the Nationals tacked on five in the ninth -- he attacked hitters, and he did not allow a Brave to reach third base.
"That's a huge game for us," St. Claire said. Now, they head home -- without their closer, but at least with a modicum of momentum.