On Cruise Control, Lannan Hits a Pothole

Philadelphia Phillies' Jayson Werth (28) connects for a solo homer against Washington Nationals starting pitcher John Lannan in the seventh inning of a baseball game in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2009. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Philadelphia Phillies' Jayson Werth (28) connects for a solo homer against Washington Nationals starting pitcher John Lannan in the seventh inning of a baseball game in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2009. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) (Pablo Martinez Monsivais - AP)
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Seventy-nine pitches into his 66th major league start, John Lannan stood on terra firma, working with a lead, pitching with control. Almost every quality start of Lannan's career had reached this vantage point: From here, he could at least see the finish line. Just eight outs to go. He knew this terrain.

Nothing in Lannan's past prepared him for what lay ahead. And only his affiliation with the most distressed team in baseball made it remotely plausible. The 80th pitch of Lannan's night was hit over the fence. So was the 84th. So was the 88th. It happened that fast. Bang-bang-bang. A groundball pitcher transformed into a gopher ball pitcher; a quality start became a humiliation; a lead became a deficit and a loss. Like never before, the ground disappeared under Lannan's feet.

His seventh-inning slip led Philadelphia to its 5-3 victory Tuesday night over the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park, and later led Lannan to wonder what happened. Only once previously had the left-hander allowed more than two home runs in a game -- he began the night issuing a home run roughly once every 140 pitches -- and here, 6 1/3 innings into his night, holding a 2-1 lead, he suddenly couldn't stop them.

Jayson Werth hit one. (OK, tie game. Relax; recover.)

Raúl Ibáñez hit one, his second of the night. (Yikes. Fight it off.)

One out later, Carlos Ruiz hit one. (Egad. Avert your eyes.)

"The game got out of my hands," Lannan said. "They have some pop. I didn't make my pitches, and that's what happened. I guess you could say they played home run derby."

Lannan's night ended after 6 2/3 innings, finished, finally, by a four-pitch walk to Pedro Martinez. ("He had just lost his concentration by that point," manager Jim Riggleman said.) But the night of jolting developments still had one more surprise. Philadelphia took a 5-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth, but it nearly surrendered the lead -- and as a result, troubled closer Brad Lidge perhaps surrendered his job.

After a hit, a hit batsman and a walk, Washington had the bases loaded with one out. Lidge, in contrast to his perfect 2008, was struggling. Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn were due up. At that moment, Charlie Manuel strode to the mound and replaced Lidge with Ryan Madson. Exiting: A pitcher with 192 career saves. A pitcher with a 7.15 ERA, and way too much difficulty finishing games this year.

Madson, cool and steady, struck out Zimmerman on three pitches and induced Dunn into a soft grounder to second. Game over.

"Obviously Lidge has been struggling, and I guess Madson hasn't," Zimmerman said. "They made the right move."

Washington's 91st loss of the season was filled as much by power as by surprise. Philadelphia hit five solo home runs, four off Lannan, counting an Ibáñez shot in the fifth. In 13 games against the Nationals this season, Ibáñez now is hitting .463 (25-for-54) with eight homers, 20 RBI and a .981 slugging percentage.

For much of the night, Lannan looked as if he'd stymie the Phillies' lineup. Philadelphia, indeed, had been struggling for weeks. In its previous 11 games, the team was hitting .234, having scored a total of 23 runs.

Said Riggleman, "Sometimes you just hope you don't do anything to wake a club up."

Had somebody from the beat-the-traffic crowd ditched the action at some moment early in the top of the seventh, the walkaway impression would have centered on Lannan's ability to keep the ball down. For much of the night, he looked like he was throwing socks, not baseballs. During a four-inning span, Lannan recorded all but one out via grounders.

He was locked in a duel with Philadelphia's Pedro Martinez, the three-time Cy Young winner who kept the Nationals off balance with changeups and curveballs. The difference between Martinez and Lannan: One avoided the big inning. Martinez, going 6 2/3 innings, allowed single runs in the first, fourth and seventh. And in the seventh, Lannan faltered.

"Well I have to learn how to slow the game down a little bit when things get out of control," Lannan said. "Kind of learn how to step off and slow down. When it's going good, I get into a nice rhythm, but when things go bad I've got to learn how to step back and take a deep breath and tell myself I still have control. And when you give up homers like that you have no control."

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