Thursday's Late Game

A Good Effort, Start to Finish

Nick Johnson is greeted by teammate Josh Willingham after scoring the go-ahead run in the eighth inning.
Nick Johnson is greeted by teammate Josh Willingham after scoring the go-ahead run in the eighth inning. (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 23, 2009

Reprinted from yesterday's late editions

Joel Hanrahan is a closer who just earned his job back, and now must prove he can close games. Craig Stammen is a starter who just earned a promotion to the big leagues, and now must prove he deserves it.

The two pitchers, who starred on opposite ends of Thursday night's 5-4 Washington Nationals victory against the Pittsburgh Pirates, know much about persistence and little about each other. Hanrahan has had a long season. Stammen has endured a long path to the majors. But by late Thursday, in a rowdy clubhouse, both felt a little more secure, and both savored the chance to talk about everything that went right.

Until Thursday, when Stammen pitched 6 1/3 innings and Hanrahan recorded the final three outs, the pair's careers had almost never intersected. Stammen, 25, was a late-blooming prospect who, even this winter, was all but lost on the organization's pitching depth chart. Hanrahan, 27, started the year with the ninth-inning role -- only to find that it became a stage for repeated, high-profile failings.

Take Wednesday, for instance. Hanrahan entered a tie game, threw a bases-loaded wild pitch, and spent another night as the goat. Stammen, who'd just flown into town from Class AAA Syracuse, was watching from his hotel room. Stammen spent the night trying to stay calm. Hanrahan, who went out after that loss with teammate Jordan Zimmermann, spent the night trying to forget.

Both pulled it off.

In the afternoon, Hanrahan reminded Randy St. Claire of his readiness. "Yesterday's over with," Hanrahan told his pitching coach. "Let's stop talking about that. We're going to win today."

But before Hanrahan took the stage, he watched his newest teammate dazzle. Recalled to replace the erratic Daniel Cabrera, Stammen moved through the Pirates' lineup as if trying to catch a flight. He retired the first 12 batters. With 15 pitches, he finished the first. With nine pitches, he finished the second. Ten more pitches -- leading to three groundouts -- and he finished the third. Working fast, painting the corners, Stammen fit the profile he'd established in seven starts with the Chiefs.

"He has a lot of clean scorecards," said fellow pitcher John Lannan, one of Stammen's closest friends. "He pitched tonight like he's been here forever."

Washington took a 3-1 lead into the seventh, and Stammen was cruising, having allowed only one base runner. Hanrahan, relaxing in the bullpen, wondered if Stammen might throw a complete game, giving him (and everybody else in the bullpen) a night off. But then, as Stammen faced Pittsburgh's lineup for the third time, he lost his grip on a near-flawless game. After walking Nate McLouth with one out in the seventh, Adam LaRoche jumped on a 2-2 pitch, sending it deep into the second deck, far enough that right fielder Adam Dunn never even backpedaled. The game was tied.

As Manager Manny Acta activated the bullpen, Stammen faced two more hitters. He served up a first-pitch double to Brandon Moss, and a fourth-pitch RBI single to Andy LaRoche. Just like that, the rookie pitcher was yanked, wondering how his night had changed in just a six-pitch span.

His final line: 6 1/3 innings, four earned runs, four hits. He allowed five runners all night, including the final four of his evening. He left with a 4-3 deficit and received a standing ovation.

"Craig came in there and pitched awesome," Hanrahan said. "I kind of felt bad for the guy giving up that home run and losing the lead."

Because Washington rallied for two runs in the bottom of the eighth -- Cristian Guzmán, Nick Johnson, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn strung together singles against Pittsburgh reliever Tom Gorzelanny -- Stammen had the chance, still, to savor his night. And Hanrahan had the chance to redeem himself.


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