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Winning Streak Ends as Nats Lose to Braves

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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 12, 2009

ATLANTA, Aug. 11 -- It's because of strikes -- precise strikes, stenciled on the border of the plate -- that John Lannan has become the Washington Nationals' happiest paradox, a dominant pitcher with non-dominating stuff. He throws 87 mph fastballs, yet it doesn't matter. He intimidates nobody, yet few hit him. It's because of strikes.

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Lannan is soft-tossing proof that accuracy is pitching's most empowering force. But every so often, on rare nights when the lefty shows up on the job without his control, he delivers proof by reduction: One realizes what he depends on most when it's gone. Indeed, take away one element of Lannan's game, and everything falters. His equilibrium disappears. He falls behind hitters, walks leadoff runners, lures his pitching coach to the mound for mid-inning meetings and generally looks nothing like very best pitcher on Washington's 25-man roster.

On Tuesday night at Turner Field, in an 8-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves, Lannan neglected his usual formula for success, and neither he nor his teammates could compensate. The Braves, snapping Washington's eight-game winning streak, knocked out Lannan in their decisive three-run fifth inning, and when it was all done, the de facto ace had one of his most aberrant pitching lines of the season. He walked four, something he hadn't done since May 31. He lasted just 4 2/3 innings, his shortest outing since opening day. He threw just 44 of his 81 pitches for strikes. (This from a guy who threw an 80-strike, 106-pitch complete game on July 21.)

"I had trouble throwing strikes today, and when I'm not throwing strikes, that's when I get into trouble," Lannan said. "Basically, that was it. There are personal things I can work on, mechanics that I know pretty much. I just have to go back to that."

Washington yielded the lead in the third inning because its lineup -- composed of the hottest-hitting middle of the order in baseball -- went arctic against Atlanta rookie Tommy Hanson. The touted prospect allowed a first-inning run keyed by Nyjer Morgan's leadoff single and subsequent stolen base. He also dodged trouble in the third when Morgan was errantly called out on a steal at third, a play that resulting in hitting coach Rick Eckstein's ejection. But Hanson, thereafter, wrestled Washington into a chokehold. He pitched into the seventh, striking out nine and walking none.

Still, this game, more than anything, made for a compelling case study on Lannan -- what enables his success, and what happens when his control abandons him.

He entered this game ranked 11th in the majors in first-strike percentage, an unheralded statistic that might be among the most telling in baseball. Lannan, before Tuesday, threw first-pitch strikes 63.6 percent of the time. Nine of the 10 with better percentages have made all-star games. The best rate in the big leagues (68.7) belongs to Toronto's Roy Halladay. Among the others ahead of Lannan: Dan Haren, Roy Oswalt, Johan Santana, Cliff Lee and Justin Verlander -- in other words, Cy Young contenders.

Before the season, then-pitching coach Randy St. Claire preached to Lannan about the importance of first-pitch strikes. In 2008, as a 23-year-old, Lannan's rate was 57.3. But St. Claire foresaw potential for Lannan to eventually boost the number -- perhaps into the upper-60s by the prime of his career.

Why would it matter? Major leaguers this year have a .396 on-base percentage after a 1-0 count. They have a .276 on-base percentage after an 0-1 count. The difference between a first-pitch ball and a first-pitch strike, in other words, is the difference between facing Nick Johnson and Wil Nieves.

On this night, Lannan had nothing. He started with a 1-2-3 inning, but even that forecasted difficulties: He threw first-pitch balls to every hitter. When he started the second with back-to-back walks -- he'd now thrown balls on 14 of 21 pitches -- the Nationals had a three-alarm alert. This was not the usual Lannan.

"He just wasn't feeling good," Nieves, the catcher, said. "His mechanics were all messed up, and he knew it." Lannan, Nieves said, was often "flying open" -- a flaw that rendered his sinker ineffective.

Lannan's early walks created the Nationals' deficit. Atlanta's Brian McCann, who led off the second with the free pass, eventually scored on a Matt Diaz double play. Ryan Church, who walked with one out in the third, scored on a scorched Martin Prado double to left-center. Lannan threw first-pitch strikes to just one of the first nine hitters, and to seven of 22 overall.

"John has been a real horse for us," interim manager Jim Riggleman said. "He's done a great job, and he'll continue to do a great job. It just wasn't his day today."

"We'd been playing good baseball," Lannan said, "and I didn't really help out with that. We just have to start another [winning streak] tomorrow."


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