By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 3, 2010; D01
MIAMI GARDENS, FLA. -- By designation, John Lannan is the Washington Nationals' best starter, the pitcher they handed the ball to on opening day, the most reliable fixture of their rotation for two seasons. By the numbers, black-and-white and cruel, Lannan this season has pitched like one of the majors' least effective.
Lannan's continued struggles Sunday afternoon at Sun Life Stadium led to a 9-3 loss to the Florida Marlins, saddling the Nationals with consecutive defeats for the first time since April 14. They will return to Washington having lost only their third series of the season, a series in which they struck out 35 times.
Even with the losses, the Nationals salvaged a .500 trip, a consolation no longer acceptable to them. "They're irritated in that clubhouse," Manager Jim Riggleman said after the game. The Nationals dropped to 13-12, a record that would have qualified as a wild success prior to the season. Now?
"[Ticked] off, to be honest with you," right fielder Willie Harris said. "We're not like in the past. Things would be, 'Aw, it's all right.' It's different."
Their frustration could not alter the results. The Marlins scored six runs off Lannan in five innings while Florida ace Josh Johnson shut down the Nationals after they took a two-run lead in the second inning. In front of 13,169, the Nationals lost on consecutive days for the first time all year. On Sunday, though, they could not overcome the parade of base runners Lannan allowed.
Lannan breezed through the first two innings allowing only a walk, and in the third, "I just had that inning again where it kind of blows up in my face," Lannan said. The Marlins stared clobbering Lannan, and they did not stop. They batted around in the third, scoring four runs despite leaving the bases loaded.
Shortstop Hanley Ramírez delivered the key blow, a three-run home run to center field, his first of two for the game. Go back, though, to the start of the inning. Brett Carroll, the eighth hitter, led off. Facing the bottom of the order, Lannan had a chance to avoid a dangerous scenario with Ramírez. Instead, he hit Carroll, and the inning unraveled.
"It put John in the situation where he ends up having to face a hot hitter," Riggleman said. "With where we were in the order at that point, we thought maybe we won't face Ramírez with men on base. But we did."
After he escaped the fourth by allowing only a double, the Marlins got to Lannan again in the fifth. He allowed four consecutive hits with one out, two singles and two doubles. He retired the side only after Ronny Paulino was caught in a rundown and Johnson, the pitcher, struck out. Twelve of the final 20 batters Lannan faced reached base.
Lannan's statistics this season form a dismal, and possibly temporary, conclusion. He ended the game with a 6.34 ERA. Lannan's WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) is 1.93, highest in the National League. His 0.67 strikeout-to-walk ratio makes him the only starter in the National League with a rate less than 1.00.
Lannan said he feels strong, just as healthy as he was opening day. "There wasn't anything missing," Lannan said. "I just struggled making pitches on a consistent basis. I'm not going to give up. It's a long season. It's only been six starts."
While Lannan's totals are bleak, the Nationals have still won three of his six starts, and two of those have been quality starts. But Lannan possesses a small margin for error. His pitches are not overwhelming, and when he lacks precise control, it allows batters to smack line drives all over the park -- like the Marlins did Sunday.
"I've got to live on that corner," Lannan said. "I'm not throwing hard enough to blow it by guys and leave the ball in the middle. They were hittable balls they just put in play. I've got to work down and on the corner."
Before the Marlins struck, the Nationals actually led, 2-0. In the second inning, Josh Willingham and Harris drew consecutive walks, and Ian Desmond followed by lacing a double to left. Lannan's grounder scored Harris, and it seemed the Nationals would erase their messy loss Saturday night.
Instead, their No. 1 starter faltered and the Nationals had to pack suitcases, murmurs and forks scraping plates the only noises filling their clubhouse, facing the prospect of a losing streak. With an off day Monday, they stayed resolute that both their team and their No. 1 starter would rebound.
"He's our guy," Harris said. "He went out there today and had a tough outing. So what? He's still our guy."