By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 14, 2009
MIAMI, Sept. 13 -- No month better tests a player's stamina than September, and no team better tests a player's stamina than one that has spent each and every day of its season in last place. If the Washington Nationals are now operating under a singular duress, their ace -- John Lannan -- has endured it for longer than anybody. No other Washington pitcher has spent the season uninterrupted on the active roster. No other pitcher has been called on more often to save his depleted team.
On Sunday, the Nationals endured when they most needed to. Relying on a pitcher making his 30th start and a lineup resting two of its top three hitters, the Nationals grabbed an early lead, persisted through another stultifying rain delay and cruised to a 7-2 victory against Florida. When they finally left Land Shark Stadium on Sunday evening, bound for another road series in Philadelphia, the Nationals were a tired team, but not a listless one.
The Nationals will take numerous lessons from their latest adventures in South Florida. In no particular order: Their top pitcher, now a career-high 185 1/3 innings into his year, still can look fresh down the stretch. Their role players, such as Pete Orr (a home run) and Willie Harris (1 for 2, three walks), and their rookies, such as Ian Desmond (2 for 5) can occasionally jump-start the offense. Their team can show life -- as it did here, winning two of three from playoff-hunting Florida -- in a uniquely dismal environment.
"We played good baseball, pretty much for the weekend," interim manager Jim Riggleman said. "We got a lot of timely hits from the young guys. We know we're not going anywhere in the standings, but guys are playing hard."
Until the Marlins move into a stadium with a roof, amateur meteorology will remain a distinct part of the Florida fan experience. Saturday's game was pushed toward midnight because of a 2-hour 34-minute rain delay. Bleary-eyed players arrived on a quick turnaround Sunday morning hoping for better luck; instead, they had the fortune to watch several hours of NFL football between innings.
With one out in the top of the sixth and Washington already ahead 7-1, sunny skies turned dark. Rain arrived. The tarp came out. Players retreated to their respective clubhouses for 2 hours 10 minutes. When the game resumed, Lannan's outing had been cut short, and two Washington relievers recorded the next nine outs in a driving rain. During half-innings, groundskeepers applied dry dirt to the soggy infield.
Finally, with no outs in the bottom of the ninth and Jason Bergmann on the mound, another torrential storm moved in. Players again hustled off the field, and never returned. After another 53 minutes of waiting, umpires called the game.
"I just wish we got the full nine in," Orr said.
Since Lannan became a full-time big league starter in 2008, he has pitched in almost every situation, but for the easiest ones. In general, Lannan doesn't pitch with comfortable leads. Only on blessed occasions does he pitch with leads of any sort. Though Lannan's lacking run support was much-discussed in 2008 -- his official name, in news accounts, elongated to Hard-Luck Loser John Lannan -- his backing this year has been equally nonexistent. Entering Sunday, 121 pitchers had thrown 100 or more innings this year; 113 had received better run support.
Close games abet the natural stress of Lannan's job, if only because his margin for error is usually so low. Since 2008, Lannan has lost 12 games when allowing three or fewer earned runs. In his previous four starts before Sunday, Washington had scored a total of four runs while Lannan was on the mound. The Nationals lost every time.
Because of all that, Sunday's cruise-control victory felt almost like compensation. Hoping to break a six-start winless streak, keen on finishing the final month with a flourish, Lannan finally received help. Lots of it. So much that he was merely a caretaker. By the time he took the mound in the first, he already had a 3-0 lead. Florida's Chris Volstad had already endured a 24-pitch frame with three walks, a run-scoring wild pitch, a two-run single from Elijah Dukes and a grotesque error from second baseman Dan Uggla. From Lannan's perspective, all looked good.
"I'm feeling strong," Lannan said after this one. "I'm feeling good. Just looking forward to finishing this year on a positive note."
Lannan has had sharper games, sure, but this one sufficed. After allowing a run in the first on back-to-back two-out singles, he blanked Florida for the next four. Meantime, Orr padded Washington's lead with a third-inning two-run shot to right, his first homer since June 7, 2006.
Nationals Notes: Pitcher Scott Olsen, recovering from surgery to repair a small tear in his left labrum, will report on Wednesday to Viera, Fla., to begin a 5 1/2 -week throwing program.
"Taking these five-pound weights out of my hand and picking up a ball will be nice," Olsen said.
During the program, Olsen won't throw off a mound, but he'll do enough long toss to gauge his readiness. If, by the end of the program, Olsen can throw 125 feet without pain, he'll be ready to pitch come spring training, he said. . . .
No. 1 pick Stephen Strasburg, who was with the Nationals for the last 1 1/2 weeks, has returned home to San Diego. But he will report back to Viera for the start of Florida Instructional League on Thursday. Strasburg's first bullpen session might come the next day, though that has not been finalized, General Manager Mike Rizzo said.