BALTIMORE John Lannan says he has never thrown hard, not in high school or at Siena College, much less in the major leagues. So, he's always had to hit the mitt, throw it in a teacup, as they say, change speeds and battle. Without poise, he knows he'd be dead. Baseball has never been easy, so he's never learned how to act, or think, like a hot shot.
But something about Lannan makes people get in his corner and get in your face if you dismiss him as a soft tosser, a pitcher that's strictly make-do until somebody better comes along. That "something" is an afternoon like Sunday at Orioles Park when he takes a two-hit shutout into the eighth inning and beats Baltimore's Jeremy Guthrie, 2-1.
For the fifth time in nine starts this season, Lannan was splendid, just superb, allowing one run or none. The list of games that make you ask, "Is he special?" keeps adding up. He's 4-4 with the best ERA (3.40) in the rotation. But it's his best games, his ability to enjoy difficult moments, that catches your eye and makes you dream just a bit.
So far this spring, he's struck out 11 Mets in Shea Stadium on a night when his parents and friends were in the stands and also gone seven scoreless innings in a duel to beat John Smoltz on the night the Brave fanned his 3,000th man. He's beaten the powerful Cubs, 2-0, on a chilly Sunday before a big house in Nationals Park.
And now, after a 2:01 pregame rain delay, he's kept his cool and prevented the Nats from being swept by their parkway rivals. "Lannan was ridiculously good with his control, throwing 70 percent strikes. That's like Greg Maddux at his best," Manager Manny Acta said. "On his fastball, 38 of 52 for strikes. Tremendous. Kept it down, got quick outs. Coming into the series, we thought Guthrie would be our hardest game. We wanted to miss him. It took John to beat him. He just hit the glove all day, stayed on the black."
So, what have you got here, Manny? Part of the Nats' future or a flash-and-gone kid.
"He has command and poise," Acta said. "A pretty solid middle-of-the-rotation guy."
If the Nats actually have a 6-foot-4 lefty, only 23, with no history of major injury and a solid long-term future, that is news. But, with a fastball that barely touches 90 mph, at best, doesn't he have to be so perfect, so precise, so -- well, lucky -- that it's unwise to put too much faith in him when so many other strong arms are in the minors behind him?
If you want to get General Manager Jim Bowden's goat, just make that argument to him about Lannan. "Give me that notepad," said Bowden, annoyed, drawing a rectangle to represent home plate. "Here's a normal distribution of strikes for most pitchers -- dots all over the zone. Now, here's Lannan." And Bowden draws a thin border on the edges of the plate and fills it with dots, leaving only a handful in the center.
"Let me tell you the lefties I've seen in the last 25 years that had patterns like that, but couldn't throw 88 to 91 like Lannan can and didn't have three other good pitches like he does," Bowden said. "John Tudor [117-72], won 20, pitched in [three] World Series, threw 80-82, good slider, nothing much else. Tom Browning [123-90], won 20, pitched in the Series, threw 84-86, change-up, no breaking ball. Jim Deshaies, won double digits [five] times, threw 80-84 and below-average every other pitch.
"Don't tell me Lannan can't win up here," Bowden said. "I've seen it done with a lot less."
Why not just anoint Lannan the next Tom Glavine? What's another 298 wins? Still, except for Shawn Hill, 27, no other Nats starters appear to have the potential to win 100 games, give or take, in a seven-year prime like Tudor and Browning.