With a Big Rally, Pirates End Lannan's Nice Run

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 3, 2008

There must be something that determines whether a pitcher wakes up one morning, his arm loose and lively, able to dominate hitters. Five days later, that same pitcher with that same arm rises, heads to the park, and his pitches have deserted him. This phenomenon has endured for . . . oh, say more than a century. John Lannan, all of 23, learned a bit about it last night.

The Washington Nationals' left-hander went from brilliant to beaten-up, all in a five-day span. He lasted just three innings in a 11-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates that not only ended a four-game Washington winning streak, but was the shortest of Lannan's 12 major league starts.

"I really stunk today," Lannan said.

Such oscillations are to be expected from a pitcher of Lannan's experience, which is to say, not much. After cruising to 21 straight scoreless innings -- a span that encompassed three previous starts and the first two innings last night -- he was throttled for six runs in the third. The big blow: José Bautista's three-run homer that capped the scoring, the first of Bautista's two blasts on the night.

That didn't even get Lannan to the night's other major event. With the Nationals trailing by six runs in the bottom of the fourth, Ryan Zimmerman led off with a bunt single. Just as he crossed the bag at first, he looked skyward down the right field line. There, two banks of lights had gone dark. Two more on the left field line did the same.

"I don't know what it is," team president Stan Kasten said, adding that the club had been installing new systems, and "it's related to that." Whatever the cause, both teams came off the field and sat idly in their dugouts, waiting out what became a 25-minute delay.

That, though, doesn't explain Lannan's struggles. At this point last year, he was pitching in Class A. But for a two-week stretch, he was the best member of what has been a surprisingly solid Washington rotation. As his confidence rose, his ERA plummeted to 2.64.

Against Pittsburgh, though, he wasn't sharp early on. He hit Nate McLouth with the first pitch he threw. He walked the leadoff man in the second, and by the time that inning ended, he had thrown 42 pitches. Still, he got through the first two frames without allowing a run to break Hector Carrasco's Nationals' mark for consecutive scoreless innings, set by the right-hander late in the 2005 season.

But when the streak ended, it did so with a thud. The Pirates' third featured nine batters, two singles, one double, Bautista's first home run, one walk and one error by second baseman Felipe López as he rushed to try to turn a double play.

The damage was enough to give the Pirates a 6-0 lead. Manager Manny Acta lifted Lannan for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the inning, by which time his ERA had risen to 3.74. With the Pirates fouling off his best offerings, it took him 85 pitches to get through those three innings. Two starts ago, he needed just 95 to throw seven scoreless frames.

"Three innings, I threw 80 pitches," Lannan said, a bit befuddled. "It felt like what I throw in seven innings bundled up in three."

Left-hander Mike O'Connor took over for Lannan in the fourth and gave up a run to make it 7-1. At that point, it seemed all but over. Even during this encouraging stretch -- the Nationals entered last night having won seven of their last nine -- the offense hasn't come around. Washington entered last night 14th or worse in the 16-team National League in runs scored, batting average, and slugging percentage.

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