By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 28, 2008
Keep Orel Hershiser on hold for now, because we're far from historic territory, and John Lannan would have to repeat the performance from his past three starts not once, but twice more. Walter Johnson one day will have a statue outside Nationals Park, and 95 years ago, he didn't allow a run for 55 2/3 straight innings, so the District's major league mark is some five starts away as well.
Kept in context, though, what Lannan is accomplishing now for the Washington Nationals could be as significant a development as this franchise has seen in three years. Yesterday, in his 11th major league start, Lannan shut out the Chicago Cubs over his seven innings, leading the Nationals to a 2-0 victory and their first series win since March 31-April 3 in Philadelphia.
The most striking aspect about the performance, in which Lannan allowed four hits, walked four men and struck out three? Manager Manny Acta could consider it and say, quite honestly, "I've seen him better."
Go back two starts, when Lannan (2-2) allowed a run in the first against the New York Mets, but then nothing else over six innings, walking nobody. Last week in Atlanta, he beat John Smoltz with seven shutout innings on the night Smoltz recorded his 3,000th strikeout. Add it up, and Lannan hasn't been scored upon in 19 consecutive innings.
Hershiser's record of 59 straight shouldn't even be mentioned at this point. But what the Nationals are watching is the development of a pitcher drafted out of Siena College in 2005, the same draft that produced cornerstone third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Now, they have a 23-year-old who rose from Class A ball to the big leagues last season, one who may never return to the minors.
"I'm learning every day," was Lannan's assessment after he lowered his ERA in five starts to 2.64, best among Washington starters. Lannan's teammates are learning about him as well. The Cubs entered yesterday with the National League's highest batting average at .285, yet he allowed them hits in just three innings. The Braves were right behind the Cubs (.283), yet Lannan allowed them only five singles. Only two NL teams strike out less frequently than New York, yet Lannan sat down 11 Mets.
"That's three really good offenses in a row," right fielder Austin Kearns said.
Lannan has been successful as much because of his approach as because of his pure repertoire, into which he's incorporated a slider. "He's got good enough stuff to attack people," Zimmerman said. But having such an arsenal and using it correctly are different things, as Jason Bergmann -- a talented but struggling right-hander the Nationals sent to the minors this month -- shows.
Take two situations from yesterday's game. The Nationals took a 2-0 lead off Cubs lefty Ted Lilly on two-out, RBI singles from Wily Mo Peña and Wil Nieves in the second. With the Nationals' offense unable to muster anything else, Lannan could have easily given it back.
The first situation came in the fifth when -- with no outs, runners on first and second and Lilly at the plate -- Cubs second baseman Ronny Cedeño got caught too far off second. Catcher Nieves threw there, but Cedeño took off for third. Both runners advanced safely, creating a spot with runners on second and third with no outs.
Lannan quickly struck out Lilly. But then, a mental error. Leadoff man Reed Johnson hit a bouncing ball toward Washington first baseman Nick Johnson. Lannan didn't cover the bag. "I don't even know what was going on in my head," he said.
Cedeño froze at third. Reed Johnson was safe at first. The bases were loaded. Lannan's response: He got Ryan Theriot to hit a ground ball over the mound, and alertly pulled back his glove. It bounced directly to shortstop Cristian Guzmán for the double play that ended the threat.
The second moment came in the sixth, when Lannan, pitching without his best command, issued a leadoff walk. With one out, Kosuke Fukudome hit a line drive to left. Peña broke in on the ball, and it sailed over his head, an out played into a double. Again, there were runners on second and third with one out.
"Just flush," Lannan said of how he deals with such situations.
"It shows that he was able to put that someplace in his mind that it didn't bother him and affect what he's trying to do," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said.
Instead, he got Mark DeRosa to tap a ball back to the mound. Lannan scooped it up, looked the runner back, and made the throw. He then induced a slow grounder to second from Cedeño. The gaffes were in the past, as was the Cubs' rally.
"The winners, when you make a mistake, they don't let it bother them," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "They go to the next pitch. They put it behind them."
Lannan's future, though, is squarely in front of him. "I'm having a ton of fun," he said. But five starts in a season, and 11 starts in a career, don't make a major league pitcher. "We're being cautious about it, about putting that pressure on the kid," Acta said.
For now, Lannan is putting pressure on others. His next start comes Saturday against Pittsburgh. Nine more shutout innings, and he's more than halfway to Washington's greatest pitcher, Walter Johnson.