By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 18, 2009
NEW YORK, June 17 -- The place mattered. This was New York, and new stadium aside, it was rocking and loud -- expectant, in that vintage pinstripe way. Not only was this New York, but it was New York in the ninth inning, a close game, the opposing starter walking off mid-inning, an untested closer entering the ring to face the potential winning run. This was New York, the way John Lannan always remembered it.
"That ninth inning, that's what reminds me of Yankee Stadium," Lannan said. "My memories, those 'Let's Go Yankees' chants."
Right before 10 p.m. Wednesday night, a tense game hung in the balance. The Yankees were playing to keep pace in a grueling division. The Washington Nationals were playing for their sanity in front of 46,052 who do sanity no favor. Washington's pulsating 3-2 win against the Yankees was great because of where it happened -- because the place itself had a back story.
Yankee Stadium. Long before throwing one of the best games of his career here -- an 8 1/3 -inning, four-hit, two-run gem -- Lannan knew this place's power. As a kid, he went with his dad to the old Yankee Stadium, which is still standing now and blanketed by scaffolding, across the street. He saw playoff games. He saw a Bernie Williams walk-off homer. "We saw Jeter, that great backhand and jump-throw," Lannan's father, Ed, said. Yankee Stadium -- that's where Lannan, who grew up on Long Island, became a baseball fan.
"It shouldn't change from stadium to stadium," Lannan said, "but tonight, just being here . . ." His sentence trailed off.
"It was just different here," he said later. "Even 'God Bless America.' " Until the ninth inning on Wednesday, Yankee Stadium was tame, actually. Lannan was responsible for the quiet. The Nationals had jumped to a 3-0 lead against Chien-Ming Wang, helped by an Adam Dunn solo homer in the fourth and a Nick Johnson two-run triple in the fifth, and Lannan did his best to make it stand. Throwing fastballs on roughly 75 percent of his pitches, Lannan kept the ball low and kept jumping ahead in counts. He didn't allow a hit until the fifth inning -- a soft homer to right-center from Robinson Canó. Through six, he had given up just two hits. Then he sniffed the finish line. The seventh was a 1-2-3 inning -- just 13 pitches. The eighth was a 1-2-3 inning -- just nine pitches.
He wanted his second career complete game. "Really, really bad," Lannan said.
The previous one had come less than two weeks ago, at Nationals Park. That night, Lannan breezed through the final inning, no sweat.
"That last inning I kind of got really pumped up," Lannan said.
Because of the place.
With his family watching up in Section 226, Lannan came out for the ninth inning, trying to close out a 3-1 game. The crowd was roaring, "Let's Go Yankees." Johnny Damon upped the electricity when he popped the third pitch of the inning just about six inches above the right field fence, a solo homer that made it a one-run game. Lannan managed a subsequent flyout, but after allowing a ground ball single to Mark Teixeira, Manager Manny Acta saw enough warning signs. Lannan's pitches were up, full of adrenaline.
The manager strode to the mound, asked for the ball and said: "Great game, John. Great game."
Like that, Lannan was back in a familiar position -- a spectator, watching a drama. He leaned over the dugout railing and watched Mike MacDougal try for his first save since July 16, 2006.
The tension kept ratcheting higher. Brett Gardner, pinch-running for Teixeira, stole second. He stole third, no throw. Alex Rodriguez walked. Runners were on first and third, one out, in a one-run game. The place was bonkers. Those in the Nationals dugout had experienced four consecutive games with late blown leads, and here was MacDougal, pitching to Canó, with hits in seven of his last nine at-bats. Canó fouled off two, then looked at two balls. MacDougal was throwing high-90s fastballs, no exceptions.
"Should I maybe mix in a slider?" he thought.
No -- catcher Josh Bard kept asking for the heat.
Four more fastballs, and Canó fouled off all of them.
Then, one more pitch, and it was over. The place went quiet. Canó bounced a grounder to short. Cristian Guzmán flipped to second, starting a double play. The Nationals snapped a four-game losing streak. Lannan burst from the dugout and high-fived MacDougal on the mound. The new closer said to the winning pitcher, "Awesome game."
"I forgot how happy I could be after a baseball game," Dunn said.
Said Ed Lannan of his son: "I just had a feeling he was gonna do something special tonight."