For Nats' Lannan, Change Is Good

Washington Nationals starter John Lannan delivers a pitch against the New York Mets during the second inning of a baseball game Monday, Sept. 15, 2008, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Washington Nationals starter John Lannan delivers a pitch against the New York Mets during the second inning of a baseball game Monday, Sept. 15, 2008, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass) (Nick Wass - AP)
By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 16, 2008

When executed properly, the change-up can render even the most powerful hitter helpless. But when it's not, it can easily turn pitches into piñatas.

The risk is amplified in the case of left-handed pitchers facing left-handed hitters, because a missed location by the pitcher typically leads to a ball left in a hitter's wheelhouse. And with the risk too high for the reward, Washington Nationals southpaw John Lannan had dismissed the idea altogether.

"It's a great concept, but I was just never really comfortable doing it," Lannan said last night.

But after what happened against the New York Mets last week, when Lannan absorbed a pounding against the NL East leaders, something had to change. The search for answers led to a conversation with fellow lefty Odalis Pérez, who suggested adding the change-up against lefties, simply to keep them honest.

As a result, change was in the air when the Nationals beat New York, 7-2, behind Lannan, who allowed just one run in seven innings by neutralizing two of the Mets' big left-handed threats, Ryan Church and Carlos Delgado.

By limiting the lefties -- who went 1 for 7 with a walk, Lannan lowered the degree of difficulty in facing the dangerous Mets lineup.

"Tonight I just threw it," Lannan said. "I was going to try it. It's something to work on."

The last time the Nationals faced the Mets, it seemed that everything had to be done with a bang. Pitching devolved into an afterthought, Elijah Dukes's temper flared and the biggest explosion came in the form of offensive excess, the kind of fight the Nationals rarely win.

But last night, it was Lannan who set the tone.

"I think it says a lot about the kid, taking into consideration such a rough start he had last time in New York," Nationals Manager Manny Acta said. "And then coming over here today, pitching the way he pitched. That's why we like this kid so much."

Lannan also got enough help from a pair of slump-busting teammates who also happen to be former Mets -- in center fielder Lastings Milledge and second baseman Anderson Hernández -- to lift the Nationals to a victory in the opener of a 10-game homestand.

Dukes applied the punctuation mark in the seventh inning, smashing a three-run homer into the left field stands to cap a two-out rally that Washington used to put away the game.

"That was a big blow," Acta said. "I think the way it looked in the eighth, we really needed that one."

This time, the Nationals' bullpen, only one night removed from blowing a five-run lead to the Florida Marlins, successfully protected a six-run cushion.

Garrett Mock, summoned in relief, allowed a double to Luis Castillo, walked pinch hitter Daniel Murphy and yielded an RBI single to José Reyes, a performance that sent Acta out to fetch him. In came left-hander Michael Hinckley, who allowed a single to Church to load the bases for New York, sending a jolt of anxiety through Nationals Park

But Hinckley, before an audience of 21,759 fans, brought them a sense of ease by inducing a double play off the bat of the dangerous David Wright. The threat was dead and Hinckley's scoreless innings streak lived on, extended to 8 1/3 innings.

"I fell behind him 2-0, and just threw the next pitch, went right at him," Hinckley said.

New York, already under scrutiny after last season's late-season collapse, entered the game with a one-game lead over the Philadelphia Phillies. But the Mets' loss allowed the idle Phillies to pick up a half-game.

Washington took a 2-1 lead in the fourth inning as Milledge continued his resurgence from a 5-for-29 slump by leading off the inning with a double to right-center field. Two batters later, Aaron Boone blooped a single into the outfield to score Milledge to put the Nationals ahead for good.

After banging out three hits on Sunday, Milledge finished with three more last night. He even added to his strong evening with a running catch in the ninth, to rob Delgado of a hit.

Hernández enjoyed with a big hit of his own. After Ryan Zimmerman and Dukes reached in the sixth inning, Hernández lined a two-run single through the hole and past a diving Delgado to make it 4-1. Hernández, traded last month from the Mets for reliever Luis Ayala, was mired in a 5-for-24 skid.

But it was Lannan's night. With his 20th quality start of the season, Lannan joined Esteban Loaiza and Liván Hernández as the only three Nationals pitchers to reach that number.

Lannan ended his night after 97 pitches, the last a nasty change-up to fool the veteran Fernando Tatis, an offering that catcher Wil Nieves called Lannan's "nastiest change-up of the night."

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