Lannan Strong, but Nats Fall to Braves

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 26, 2009

What-if scenarios at this point have little utility, because Friday night's game is over, John Lannan lost, and that's that. Imagining what should have happened only aids the torment, because neither life nor pitching is fair, especially when a 101-loss support staff with worst-in-the-majors fielding comes in to lend assistance. There's a reason Lannan still has nine wins when he should have 12 or 13. If he had good support, Friday night's game might still be going, and Lannan might still have a shutout.

Instead, Washington's top pitcher finished the night with a strong outing and a strongly sour defeat. In the Nationals' 4-1 loss at Nationals Park against Atlanta, Lannan went seven innings, allowing zero earned runs. Unfortunately Lannan was pitching against a wild-card contender, rather than for one. All in the same inning, his right fielder missed a line drive in the lights, his second baseman booted a grounder, and neither his left fielder nor his center fielder took charge on a flyball between them. The good news was, at least the other four fielders did all right.

"I feel terrible that John pitched as good as he did and couldn't get a win," interim manager Jim Riggleman said.

"He pitched amazing, really," Pete Orr said. "Bottom line is, we've got to make those plays, and we didn't."

After Washington's relievers allowed two late runs, one unearned, the Nationals finished a night where the mistakes outnumbered the hits. Facing Atlanta right-hander Javier V?zquez, now 5-0 in his last six starts, Washington managed almost nothing. Only a Josh Bard solo homer in the eighth broke the shutout. Vazquez, using just 104 pitches, threw a three-hit complete game.

"The score could be 0-0, the way V?zquez was throwing and the way John was throwing," Riggleman said. "They both could have gone 11 tonight."

Had Lannan been operating in a fanciful world where fielders catch what they should, he would have been finished with the first inning after three batters and 12 pitches. He would have returned to the dugout, game still scoreless, and watched his lineup strive for a few runs against a pitcher who doesn't usually give up many.

Ah, to imagine. Indeed, after his 12th pitch and his third batter, Lannan was still stranded on the mound, and he remained there as his teammates gave an impromptu demonstration of fielding mistakes. It started out tame enough, because even after Josh Willingham muffed that low-riding, two-out Chipper Jones flyball -- the right fielder, unable to track the ball through the stadium lights, turned away from the liner as if it was a javelin -- Lannan appeared all right.

But twice more, the defense let him down. After a walk, Yunel Escobar's scorched one-hop grounder to second base should have ended the inning. Instead, as the umpire skipped out of the way, second baseman Orr let the ball scoot off his mitt -- an error that allowed Jones to score. Garret Anderson's routine flyball to left should have ended the inning, too. This time, Willie Harris and Justin Maxwell converged on the ball -- Maxwell charging in too late, Harris backing off -- and the ball kerplunked five feet from both of them. Atlanta had a 2-0 lead. Lannan, throwing 35 pitches by inning's end, had allowed two unearned runs.

At this point, Lannan's start could have unraveled. He refused to let it happen. Given the hurdle he started with, the rest of Lannan's night looked even more impressive. And the longer Lannan stayed out there, shutting down Atlanta inning after inning, the costlier those early miscues became. As V?zquez held Washington scoreless, Lannan responded with six consecutive shutout innings. After the first, he never faced more than four batters in a frame. He mixed speeds. He struck out six. He lowered his ERA from 4.07 to 3.93.

After the game, Lannan refused to point fingers at the fielding mistakes. Things like that happen, he said. He noted that plenty of times this year, fielders have bailed him out. Baseball is an equal opportunist.

"That was one of my better starts because I didn't let [the mistakes] affect my outing," Lannan said. "That game could have gotten out of hand and I told myself, 'Leave it on the line,' and that's what I did."

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