Lannan Disappoints as Nats Drop Fifth Straight

Milwaukee Brewers shortstop Alcides Escobar (21) turns a double play on Washington Nationals' Elijah Dukes (34) during the second inning of a baseball game, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2009, in Washington. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)
Milwaukee Brewers shortstop Alcides Escobar (21) turns a double play on Washington Nationals' Elijah Dukes (34) during the second inning of a baseball game, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2009, in Washington. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez) (Luis Alvarez - AP)
By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 23, 2009

No matter how many positive steps the Washington Nationals took in the early part of this week to give a franchise facelift, they cannot change the makeup or the ability of the team on the field in just seven days. Two steps forward seem to require just as many backward.

So, after the excitement calmed from the signing top draft pick Stephen Strasburg, the removal of the interim label from general manager Mike Rizzo's business cards, and distant memories of their eight-game winning streak earlier this month, the Nationals still had to temper their promise with their reality. Saturday's 11-9 home loss to the Milwaukee Brewers gave the Nationals their fifth losing streak of at least five games this season.

And even though they mounted a terrific comeback after spotting Milwaukee the game's first seven runs, the Nationals also have to confront that their best pitcher is suffering a dramatic dropoff from the middle part of this season, when he was perhaps the team's best surprise.

"I'm the eternal optimist," said Nationals interim manager Jim Riggleman, who was ejected in the third inning when he argued a strikeout called on Ryan Zimmerman's check-swing. "We're running into a few days where we just gotta take pride where we're just doing everything we can do to win a ballgame."

After the start of the game was delayed 81 minutes due to heavy rain, only a portion of the announced 19,374 paid attendance took their seats. They saw what had been one of the Nationals' best stories this season suffer through the worst outing of his career.

John Lannan, the twenty-four-year-old lefthander, was a stalwart in June and July, going 5-2 with a 2.44 earned run average in 10 starts, eight of which the Nationals won, from June 6 - July 26. The Nationals won only eight of the other 35 games during that span when Lannan didn't pitch.

But over his five starts since then, Lannan has not been able to rely on his control and opponents have made him pay for it. Even though he didn't get the loss Saturday, he has gone 1-2 with a 8.28 ERA in those five games, and allowed 23 earned runs on 37 hits and 12 walks in 25 innings.

The first four Brewers reached base against Lannan, who allowed two runs in the first inning and five more before being chased from the game with two outs in the second. It was the shortest outing of his major-league career. The Brewers swung and missed at only one of Lannan's 43 pitches, several of which hung up in the strike zone. Their top two batters, Felipe López and Mike Cameron, combined to go 8 for 12 with four doubles and five runs scored.

"I've been feeling great," Lannan said, trying to explain his sudden difficulties. Warming up "in the bullpen, everything's been down, but as soon as I get in the game, everything's been up. Physically, I feel fine, so I guess it's kind of a mental change. I know something's got to change, though. As a starting pitcher, it's unacceptable if I don't go six or seven" innings.

Riggleman said. "I love giving him the ball. He's gonna get it straightened out. He feels terrible because he knows he's putting guys in situations where they have to pitch more than we'd like them to pitch in the bullpen."

Fortunately, for Lannan's record, the Nationals were able to get him off the hook. Trailing 8-2 in the bottom of the third, Zimmerman struck out on a check swing with the bases loaded for the second out. Riggleman, who had already argued with umpires in each of the first two innings, disputed the call and was ejected by home plate umpire Mike Reilly.

"I thought I was gonna get thrown out," Riggleman said. "I had been out there three times. You're going to get run."

Whether or not Riggleman argued to ignite his players, Ronnie Belliard made it seem like he did. He came up next, and took the first pitch, a hanging slider, deep into the left-field seats for a grand slam to cut Milwaukee's lead to 8-6.

Belliard knew it as soon as he connected, and watched his shot zip toward the seats for his fifth homer of the season and third grand slam of his career.

"You felt the momentum swing in our way a bit," Riggleman said. "But we couldn't turn it around all the way."

In the top of the sixth, Cameron reached on a one-out infield single and and advanced to second when Belliard's off-balance throw was wild. After Ryan Braun grounded out, Prince Fielder was intentionally walked. Casey McGehee drew a full count on Jason Bergmann, and poked the next pitch onto the edge of the center field grass. Running on contact, Cameron scored easily to put the Brewers back up, 9-8.

After Jason Kendall led off the top of the seventh with a single, Lopez drove him in with a two-out double on Ron Villone to make it 10-8. Kendall doubled with two outs in the eighth to score Ryan Braun with the Brewers' 11th run.

Lenny Harris' pinch-hit solo homer in the bottom of the eight closed out the scoring. Trevor Hoffman earned his major-league record 581st career save by retiring the Nationals in order in the ninth.

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