Nats' Lannan Not Sharp, But Gets Rare Support

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 2008

ATLANTA, July 19 -- Well, thank goodness, because John Lannan needed a night like this. A night when everything went right for baseball's most unfortunate pitcher.

Lannan, effective and luckless in so many losses this season, finally was lucky when he was largely ineffective. In an 8-2 drilling of the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field, Lannan received a karmic apology for all the nights when great efforts yielded only close defeats. Here, he survived just enough tight spots to mask a substandard outing. And more important, his longtime nemesis -- the Nationals' offense -- decided to demonstrate its worth as a partner.

Lannan managed to hold a narrow lead. Then, the offense, with a 14-hit eruption, widened it. Such cooperation is a part of baseball's grand design, sure. But until Saturday, perhaps Lannan didn't know. Only two National League pitchers have more losses. Only three National League pitchers have more quality starts. That two such rankings coexist helps explain why Lannan, after finishing his six innings Saturday night, returned to his clubhouse locker, exhaled, and relished the chance to talk about a game when he got "lucky."

Where to begin? Well, thank goodness that line drive in the fourth was hit toward a center fielder who can run fast, or else three runs would have scored, and thank goodness that scorching liner in the fifth rode a bull's-eye line straight to the right fielder, or else two more would have scored. Thank goodness, while we're at it, for that strange 6-5 putout in the second, a tag at third base that canceled a leadoff walk. And thank goodness for that pickoff play in the third, which negated a two-out hit.

"I was getting a little frustrated," Lannan (6-9) said, "but I really had to battle today."

For much of the season, Lannan has received luck like the Mojave receives high tide. But because he's a pitcher, and because pitchers are creatures of habit, Lannan never altered his numerous peculiarities, always counting on his sport to equalize things. Before Saturday's start, same as always, he called his mother. He pulled his socks up. He started innings by exiting the dugout from the railing closest to the coaches; he ended innings by returning through the entrance farthest from the coaches. Always, he hopped the foul lines like a horse leaping a gate.

That's not to say Lannan is superstitious. Not entirely, at least. He has never played the lottery. He wears his uniform number -- 31 -- only because that's what coaches gave him in college at Siena. But other than that, Lannan has adhered, despite his misfortune, to everything that got him this far.

"Well," he said after this one, "normally I don't eat anything heavy. But today before I pitched I had a Reuben. I saw it there, it just looked so good. So I went heavy today. And I always have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, like, two hours before I pitch. And I sip a Red Bull just before I go out there, just to get the taste in my mouth. Just two sips."

From there, he rode more customary forms of assistance. All the while, he demonstrated something valuable: Even at 23, he's capable of winning on days when his pitching repertoire suggests that he shouldn't. Against Atlanta, his fastballs tailed in. Even staked to a 3-0 lead, he tempted several situations when it almost unraveled. But no situation -- and no escape -- better showed Lannan's resolve than the fourth inning.

That's when Lannan, who started the frame with two outs, allowed a pileup of runners. Two hits, then a hit batsman. Up stepped Greg Norton, who Lannan summarily greeted with three balls in four pitches. Norton then fouled off two pitches. The crowd, chopping its foam tomahawks, roared. There was Lannan, sweating, breathing deep, laboring. Lannan later said that moments like that are why he loves pitching.

With the count full, Norton smeared a fastball toward the warning track, a hit with the velocity that had the whole stadium gasping. Then, a startled sigh: Willie Harris tracked it down on the run.

Lannan's take? "Lucky," he said.

To help, Washington's offense -- using a lineup with one all-star and nobody else batting higher than .234 -- defied its own shortcomings. Harris, Cristian Guzmán, Austin Kearns, Paul Lo Duca and Ryan Langerhans all had multi-hit games. When the Nationals put runners on base, they took advantage with an efficiency rarely demonstrated this season; one run scored on a Lo Duca double, another on a Guzmán triple, another on a Harris triple. Midway through the seventh, Washington had managed to knock out Braves starter Jair Jurrjens (9-5), who entered the night as the league's winningest rookie. But for one night, Jurrjens failed to match Lannan, whose ERA dropped to 3.29.

"He has a knack to make pitches when he has to despite his age," Manager Manny Acta said. "It's a good asset to have, especially when you're that young, and it says a lot about him."

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