By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 25, 2008
The task facing Washington Nationals' starting pitchers these days is so demanding, just recognizing it causes problems. Supported by an offense in famine mode, those such as John Lannan -- last night's starter at Nationals Park -- take the mound both knowing and trying not to know the reality. One mistake, and they'll likely lose. One hanging breaking ball, and a team falls in the standings.
Last night, the Nationals again lost when their starter pitched well enough to win. The offense, though, failed to compensate for a two-run homer Lannan (4-5) allowed in the fourth inning, a mistake that turned into a 5-2 defeat against Milwaukee.
Nine previous starts this season indicated that if Lannan surrendered more than two runs, he'd likely lose. All season, he -- like the other Washington starters -- has operated with little margin for error. Only once in his previous starts this year had Lannan exited the game with Washington having scored more than two runs. Somehow, he still had won four games.
Hours before this one, he operated in a bubble, separated from all awareness.
Lannan, 23, sat on the chair in front of his clubhouse locker and turned toward teammates Shawn Hill and Jason Bergmann.
"Is it hot outside?" Lannan asked.
He paused a beat.
"Is it raining?"
Preparation for this start required him to forget the circumstances, because these days, the worst hardship involves an offense that hasn't scored more than six runs since May 12. During that span, every other team in Washington's division has equaled or topped that total at least three times.
"I think scoring six runs with the pitching we have, we can win a lot of games," said right fielder Elijah Dukes, who had his best game as a National, going 2 for 4 and raising his average to .111.
The urgency to limit Milwaukee's offense provided the framework for the one inning when Lannan struggled. He had breezed through the first three innings, locating a sharp slider, throwing it low to strike out Prince Fielder and Corey Hart back-to-back in the second.
But in the fourth inning, after issuing a leadoff double to Mike Cameron, he backed himself into a dicey situation.
With Cameron 180 feet from scoring the game's first run, Lannan stared at the thick part of the Milwaukee order -- Ryan Braun, Fielder and Hart. When the count on Braun swelled to 3-0, though, Lannan hung on. Braun fouled off five pitches in a row, two of them ropes that just missed the left field line. Finally, Lannan lured Braun to chase a breaking ball in the dirt. That meant a strikeout, one step closer to an escape.
But after a harmless Fielder groundout, Lannan still needed one more out. And it came one batter too late.
Hart lifted a 2-1 pitch, a curveball across the plate, well beyond the left-center field fence. The Brewers had a 2-0 lead.
"I think he battled for us. He just made a couple mistakes," Manager Manny Acta said. "The way we're swinging the bat and scoring runs, it puts a little bit of pressure on those guys. Because you have to try to shut down the opposition to score as low as you can."
In the fifth inning, after Milwaukee had scored another run, the Nationals started climbing back with the assistance of some unlikely participants: an everyday center fielder with one home run, a starting right fielder with two hits all season, a 29-year-old backup catcher. Lastings Milledge homered, Dukes followed with a single, and Wil Nieves knocked him in with a double that hit the right field wall on one bounce.
The Nationals, though, managed nothing more against spot starter Seth McClung, who throws in the mid-90s, but until yesterday, did so exclusively as a reliever.
In the sixth inning, Milledge's two-out liner to shortstop stranded Ryan Zimmerman at third base.
One inning later, Nieves hit into a 1-4-3 double play that canceled the promise of another hit by Dukes.
In the final inning, even a pair of Milwaukee errors couldn't start a rally. With runners on first and third with one out, both Dukes and Aaron Boone struck out.
"The day will come around," Lannan later said of the run support. "It doesn't affect the way I throw at all. Just trying to get them back in the dugout, get some momentum. My goal is just to go out there and keep the team on their feet. They all want it."