Nationals Ace Lannan Is Low-Key and Unflappable

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 2, 2009

DUNEDIN, Fla., April 1 -- The dog ate his goals. Seriously. John Lannan generally keeps a list of his goals tucked somewhere in his wallet, and this worked just fine until Lannan's puppy got hold of it. Bailey likes to chew on things, so recently, he chewed on Lannan's wallet. The money survived, the credit cards suffered just a few tooth marks, but the goals disappeared.

"I have to write them down again," Lannan said, shrugging.

But see, that's the problem. When the record of his goals became dinner -- Lannan on Wednesday pulled open his wallet, showing the empty slot -- they were gone, and gone for good. The pitcher could no longer remember them. He had written them down in the first place not so much because he needed them, but rather because goals are part of the standard athlete operating procedure, so he might as well play along. Goals depend on numbers, and numbers tie seasons together, folding every result into a running tab. But so far in his short career, Lannan has shown the gift for something quite the opposite: Every start stands alone. Bad moments never become bad stretches.

Armed with little velocity, drafted with minimal hype, Lannan, 24, has become Washington's ace by channeling a lot of focus and just a touch of absentmindedness. He is the pitching equivalent of a shoulder shrug, which is why the Nationals believe his latest title (Opening Day starter) won't change a thing.

In a division that includes Johan Santana and Cole Hamels, Lannan is an unusual Opening Day starter, only a calendar year removed from his latest stint in the minors. Lannan almost never tops 90 mph. He went 9-15 last year. Still, come April 6, Lannan will take the ball, the leader of baseball's youngest pitching staff. And Lannan's method for coping with the new responsibility?

"Well, I'm not going to dial anything up," Lannan said, breaking off a question about gearing up for the opener.

"I think all he needs to do is be the John Lannan of 2008," Manager Manny Acta said.

On Wednesday, in his final tune-up of the exhibition season, Lannan had one of the ugliest -- and most uncharacteristic -- starts of his professional career. In what ended as a 7-6 loss to Toronto, Lannan, normally precise with his control, threw just 51 of 90 pitches for strikes and walked three. Most games, Lannan is a groundball pitcher; here, he kept swinging his head toward the outfield gaps, watching as the Blue Jays clubbed seven doubles and one home run. Last year, Lannan only once allowed more than six earned runs; this time, seven crossed home by the time his afternoon ended, after 4 2/3 innings.

About once every two months, Acta said, Lannan will have a start like this one. But that's okay, because of the way he responds. Next time out, he generally pitches as if the previous time never happened. Last year, he rebounded from one of his worst starts (four innings, nine hits, six runs against Atlanta) with his best (six innings, three hits, one run, 11 strikeouts against the Mets). His 2008 stats revealed a pitcher who improved when the situation intensified. With runners in scoring position and two outs, opponents batted .192 against him. Handed some of the worst run support in baseball, Lannan never changed his demeanor.

"Inner confidence," said Randy Knorr, who managed Lannan in the minors. "Nothing bothers him."

"That's the mental part of the game that is so difficult for young guys to pick up, but I think he's always had it," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. "It's something that is very hard to teach. You talk to these guys about it, and some can get it better than others, but some -- they just have it."

Lannan was an 11th-round draft pick in 2005, and rose through the minors not only because of his progress, but because of the organization's depleted deck of prospects. He arrived in the big leagues just in time to show he could handle just about anything. On Aug. 6, 2007, Lannan made his third career start. He was in San Francisco. So were about 43,000 fans -- each with camera flashbulbs popping -- several hundred media members, and one particular slugger with 755 home runs, one shy of baseball's most revered record. With his parents watching, Lannan faced Barry Bonds four times that day. In Bonds's final at-bat, Lannan fell behind 3-1, then loaded the count with a fastball.

Next pitch, Lannan threw a curveball, low and away.

Bonds swung and missed.

For at least another night, the record watch was on hold.

Washington's organization, for perhaps the first time, realized that pressure didn't spike Lannan's heart rate.

"If he didn't get rattled facing Barry Bonds in front of national television," Acta said, "a packed stadium over there in San Francisco, very few things can happen [to rattle him]. I guess we're going to have to wait until playoff time to see if he can get rattled. I don't think there will be anything bigger than that."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company