By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 23, 2009
In the Washington Nationals' clubhouse, their name placards -- "LANNAN 31" and "STAMMEN 35" -- are side-by-side, close as their friendship. John Lannan and Craig Stammen, for at least four years now, have tried to follow one another. They were drafted one round apart in 2005, Lannan in the 11th round, Stammen in the 12th. One day into their minor league careers, on a ballfield in Vermont, nobody knew a soul, so Stammen walked up to Lannan and asked if he needed a roommate.
Wednesday night, after Stammen's 7 1/3 four-hit innings dictated a 3-1 win at Nationals Park against the Mets, the right-hander returned to his locker and said, "Two wins in a row, you can't beat that." Or rather, you can't beat two wins like this. A night earlier Lannan had thrown a complete-game shutout against the same team, and sure, Stammen applauded the accomplishment, but more than anything, he wanted to replicate it. So he watched video of Lannan's nine innings, crafted a similar fastball-reliant game plan, took the mound and pitched well enough to give the friends back-to-back victories on back-to-back nights.
Only the luckiest just-out-of-college minor leaguers rise to the big leagues. As for those who rise step for step with their closest friend, sharing thoughts on opposing lineups the same way they'd share thoughts on dinner plans -- well, there's at least one example in the big leagues, and it's rising in prominence as Stammen solidifies his standing as a steady, sinker-throwing, grounder-inducing starter. Or rather, as a right-handed version of Lannan.
"We're a lot alike," Stammen said. "Hitters don't really see us the same way, but he went after guys with his fastball. That's what I did. I had to go out and see if it was working, but it was working so I stuck with it. He had a tremendous outing. Like I said, I was able to build off it."
For about 1 1/2 years, Lannan was several steps ahead of Stammen. As Lannan thrived in the big leagues, Stammen wasn't even on the front office's radar. This spring, the pair lived together -- but Stammen wasn't invited to big league camp. And before a pitcher climbs onto a big league mound he must be on the 40-man roster, and before he's on the 40-man roster he must be well-regarded by those who determine such things. Months ago, Stammen wasn't and wasn't. Now he is and he is.
Stammen said he and Lannan "would talk about what we'd think it would take to get to the big leagues, and he figured it out a little sooner than I did, but we always kind of were that one-two combo where people always said, 'Oh, you've got a chance to make it to the big leagues.' "
Stammen's dominance against the Mets was not dismissible. He retired the first 12 opposing batters, using just 38 pitches. He didn't allow a hit until the fifth. The defense helped him out, too, Nyjer Morgan was running down balls in the outfield and Ryan Zimmerman was vacuuming scorched grounders at third. In theory, relying on clean pitching and airtight defense is the perfect formula -- though for the Nationals, that can be a dangerous proposition.
The Nationals had taken a 1-0 lead in the fourth against New York right-hander Mike Pelfrey, manufacturing a run with a Nick Johnson walk, a Josh Willingham double and a textbook Ronnie Belliard sacrifice fly, but the Mets tied the game in the sixth because of an inexplicable fielding sequence. Morgan took a bad angle for an Angel Pagán liner to left-center, charging when he should have backed off, which led to a Pagán triple. One problem: The play kept going. Morgan relayed a throw to shortstop Cristian Guzmán, who whipped a ball needlessly to third, where Zimmerman wasn't ready for the throw.
The ball whizzed into the New York dugout, and Pagán was awarded home.
New York was gifted a tie.
Still, that was the only run Stammen allowed. And Washington regained the lead in the bottom of the sixth, when Willingham, who went 4 for 4 with two doubles, smashed a two-run homer off Pelfrey just beyond the visiting bullpen in left-center.
"It starts with pitching," Willingham later said. "That was important for us the last couple nights."
Perhaps it's too early for declarations with Stammen. This was just his 12th big league start. Whereas Lannan is proven, Stammen is still trying to prove. Still, in July, Stammen has started four times, throwing 29 1/3 innings and yielding just seven earned runs (2.15 ERA).
"Last time John threw a complete game I went out and gave up five runs in the first inning," Stammen said, referring to Lannan's June 6 start against the Mets. "So it was in my head -- you know what, I'm gonna give a good outing here and prove that I've come along a little bit since I've been in the big leagues."