By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Consistency is John Lannan's hallmark. His statistics validate this. So do the opinions of his Washington Nationals teammates, who call him their stopper, their ace, the one pitcher who regularly substitutes luster for losing. Perhaps the best way to affirm Lannan's consistency, though, extends as much from his attendance as his performance. Every day this season -- that's 93 games now -- Lannan has entered a stadium, dressed in a clubhouse, and finished the night without an injury, a pink slip, or a performance that warranted one. He has endured, and thrived, in a season where few others have.
Start to finish, Lannan has been with the Nationals for every step, something no other Washington pitcher can say. Just as important, he has supported them when others cannot.
Tuesday night was the latest, strongest evidence that Lannan -- who is solid on his worst days -- can also be spectacular. In a sound 4-0 defeat of the Mets at Nationals Park, Lannan displayed his model form. He threw a complete game. He walked nobody. He threw 106 pitches, 80 strikes. He forced two double plays, induced 17 groundouts, recorded the final out with 23,414 standing, and then handed the game ball to Jim Riggleman, celebrating his first win as interim manager.
"John was just so outstanding tonight," Riggleman said.
"He pitched a hell of a game," center fielder Nyjer Morgan said.
"It's normal for him, right?" Ryan Zimmerman said. "He's really got that mind-set this year, and he's become our guy. He's really maturing and becoming a great pitcher."
Perhaps the Nationals, with a 27-66 record, have forfeited the right to expect much fortune this year. But at least they have retained the right to expect good things every five days. On a roster beset by turnover -- the Nationals have used 44 players this year, including 10 rookies -- Lannan is the most durable, the most dependable, and sometimes, the most dominating. Among pitchers, only Lannan and Joe Beimel have been with the team since opening day, and Beimel missed time with an injury. Lannan, measured by consistency, is unmatched.
Tuesday night showcased the ideal Lannan outing. He got a few great defensive plays from Morgan and plenty of standard infield plays on soft-hit grounders. He cruised into the ninth with just 95 pitches. By the end, everything had come together: Washington's lineup had mustered only four hits, but some timely situational hitting against Oliver Pérez led to two runs in the fourth, two more in the fifth. Lannan took care of the rest. He retired 17 of the last 19, and threw first-pitch strikes to the final 11 hitters.
Following the second complete game of his career (and his first career shutout), Lannan acknowledged his growth this season. Entering this year, he hoped to push himself deeper into games. In 2008, he mastered the six-inning performance, and rarely went much farther. Now, quality is his baseline. He's gone at least five innings in 19 of his 20 starts this year. In the most recent 18, he has allowed three or fewer earned runs 16 times. Sometimes, it's best to just stand back, listen, and observe how a pitcher observes himself.
This year, Lannan is becoming comfortable: "I usually do a scouting report where I look at video and stuff," he said, "and this scouting report I just basically did it from memory. I'm starting to get a little more comfortable with the NL East."
This year, Lannan is learning: "I mean, it was the most 'like me' start," he said. "It was groundballs. I got ahead of guys. I didn't walk anybody. That's what it takes for me to be successful. I mean, dominating? I don't know. I've never considered myself a dominating pitcher. I don't think the guys over there in the Mets clubhouse are like, 'Wow, that guy dominated me.' I just made good pitches down in the zone."
This year, Lannan has come to a realization: "I'm very deceptive," he said, asked what he's figured out this year.
"If a guy is mis-hitting an 88-mile per hour fastball, there's something going on. There has to be a little bit of funk. That has to help me trust my stuff a little bit better. Last year I nibbled a lot on the corners; even the first two starts this year I was nibbling on the corners. [But since] I haven't had that feeling of nibbling this year. Because I have that trust in my fastball, where it doesn't have to be 95 miles per hour. There's something in my delivery that throws the hitter off just a little bit. It might be late movement, but I've learned that I can trust my fastball."