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An Ace, or Close to It

By Tracee Hamilton
Thursday, July 9, 2009

Is John Lannan the Nationals' ace? Lannan starts laughing even before the question is complete.

"I don't consider myself the ace at all," he said.

Okay, so define an ace for us, John.

"The ace of the ballclub is the guy who goes out there every five days and goes deep in ballgames and helps the team win every time he goes out."

At the next locker, Ross Detwiler mutters under his breath. What's that, Ross?

"Sounds like John Lannan to me," he says, grinning, as Craig Stammen nods in agreement.

Lannan shakes his head sheepishly. The previous night, he had taken the mound after five days, gone deep in the ballgame and given his team the chance to win. The Nats responded with an eighth-inning rally and a 5-3 victory over the Braves that ended a four-game losing streak.

That's rapidly becoming a specialty for Lannan (6-5), whose next start is tonight in Houston. Perhaps ending losing streaks is not much of a challenge on a team that loses as often as the Nats, but if a four-game losing streak is demoralizing, a nine-game streak would be devastating.

So, Manny Acta, John Lannan says he's not your ace. What do you say?

"Yeah, I feel the same way," Acta said. "We don't have any ace. . . . He's our number one guy right now, but he's no ace and I'm glad he feels that way.

"Aces are [Roy] Halladay, [Johan] Santana, [CC] Sabathia and those guys. Overpowering guys that have the track record and that every year people are forecasting them to win 20 games. He's not in that category yet."

Fair enough. Lannan, after all, is just 24. He's started just 54 games. He is steadily lowering his ERA, from 18.00 after his Opening Day loss to 3.45, but there's room for improvement. The season was nearly at the halfway mark before his record got above .500.

On the other hand, he's 4-0 in his past six starts. All four wins ended losing skids. His ERA since June 6 is 2.40. He hasn't given up more than three runs in a game since May 25.

"Right now I'd have to say he is" our ace, said Steve McCatty, who (perhaps not coincidentally) took over as pitching coach June 2. "He's our stopper. . . . When you lose four games in a row and the last one you won was the one he started, and then you win again. . . . He's throwing the ball exceptionally well, and every time he goes out there he gives you a chance to win."

McCatty was familiar with Lannan from their time at Class AAA Columbus in 2007. When McCatty joined the Nats in June, he didn't try to change anything Lannan was doing; rather, he told Lannan to keep doing what he does best.

"His strength is locating a fastball and throwing strikes," McCatty said. "He's going to pitch ground-ball double plays every time he's out there. That shows you what your strength is and that shows you how important it is to be able to locate your fastball down and away. He gets them on other pitches, too, but I just told him I wanted him to go out there and throw strikes and pound the zone. That's the one thought. Let the ball sink. You gotta trust it, throw it over and trust it, and that's what he's done. I can't say what he did before, but since I've been here that's what he's done."

Lannan's own goal this season has been to go deeper in games. Like the phoenix -- or Britney Spears's career -- the bullpen has gone up in flames, risen from the ashes, and gone up in flames again repeatedly this season. But like a good ace, or stopper, or whatever he is, Lannan doesn't want to assign blame.

"It's something I wanted to work on," he said. "Last year I would go five or six . . . this year one of my goals is to go deeper in ballgames. After my poor performance in the first two starts, I told myself that I was going to try to go deeper in ballgames, and I've been doing it on a more consistent basis, so that's something I've been trying to work on."

So eight innings, and call in the closer?

"Of course, or nine, you know?" he said. "Now I've gone for nine . . . I know it's there. Before I didn't know if it could happen. But knowing if you throw strikes and keep your pitch count down, things can happen and the team scores runs, you can go the whole game, so now it's in the back of my head, knowing I can go the whole game."

Going deep in games . . . wasn't that part of the ace definition? So is he or isn't he?

"He has become that stabilizer type of guy here in the rotation, where we look forward for him to pitch every five days because his outings, pretty much you can just write it down," Acta said. "He's going to go at least five and keep us in the game."

Okay, so "stabilizer" doesn't sound as good as "ace," but baby steps. At this point in Lannan's young career, "stopper" might be more near the mark. But if you were the ace, John, would there be any perks involved? Better seat on the plane? Rookies carrying your bags?

"This is only my second year and the guys who are rookies are my friends so it's not like I would ask them to do anything special," he said. "Being 24, I can't big-time anyone. If I could, I wouldn't. That's not how I, uh, roll, I guess you could say."

Lannan has a place near Nationals Park; he watched the Fourth of July fireworks from his rooftop terrace and says he loves living in the District. Asked if his place was a swinging bachelor pad, he issued a non-denial denial but admitted he is "newly single" and added that he recently lost his housemate when closer Joel Hanrahan was dealt to the Pirates.

"I'm going to have a new roommate," he said. "I'm putting a listing up on Craigslist."

What? He laughs again.

"No, I'm just kidding."

Not an ace yet, perhaps, but obviously a joker.

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