By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 2, 2010; D01
Contention for these Washington Nationals remains a long discarded hope, but the importance of baseball in August and September is relative. The wins and losses will not affect their whereabouts in October. They still matter if you find meaning in them. Any week may spark the Nationals toward respectability, any series may jar a divisional bully and any afternoon might help restore confidence to an exiled opening day starter.
The stakes are different for the Nationals and the Philadelphia Phillies, which did not soften the sting for the Nationals when Plácido Polanco's game-winning single off Collin Balester in the 11th inning sent them to a 6-4 loss Sunday afternoon. Before 35,807 at Nationals Park, after opening day starter John Lannan made a short-yet-successful return from the minor leagues, Washington squandered a two-run lead, a chance at its first-ever sweep of the Phillies and its first four-game winning streak of the season.
"A lot of really good things happened," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "We've just got to keep realizing that we're not that far away in competing with these clubs. We played them even-up, pretty much. We've got to realize we're right there."
The Nationals finished their homestand 4-2 against the two most dominant forces in National League East, but they also dropped back to 13 games under .500. On Sunday, they received a promising sign in Lannan's return. With altered mechanics and a clear head, Lannan allowed two earned runs in five innings on seven hits. He accepted his demotion five weeks ago not as punishment, but as a necessary step.
"It was the best thing for me at the time," Lannan said. "I wasn't helping the team here. I had some things to work on. It was just something I needed to do. It wasn't a physical rehab. But it definitely was a rehab for me to get back to the top of my game. It was the best thing for me, and I'm glad that it happened."
Earlier last week, Riggleman spoke with Harrisburg Manager Randy Knorr about Lannan, who went 1-4 with a 4.20 ERA, deceiving statistics, the Nationals believed. They came to believe he had righted himself. "He looks like the same as last year," Knorr told Riggleman.
At Class AA Harrisburg, Lannan rebuilt his confidence and recaptured his ability to throw a sharp sinker low in the strike zone. First, he convinced himself the left elbow injury from earlier in the year no longer affected him. He started his motion from a more athletic stance -- "a little more crouched," pitching coach Steve McCatty said. He held the ball longer in his delivery to hide it from the batter. About 10 days ago, a mechanical adjustment that helped lower his pitches clicked.
"I know John's work ethic," McCatty said. "I know he cares. I had no doubt how he was going to go about it when he went down there."
Lannan could not have chosen a worse opponent than the Phillies, against whom he was 0-7 with a 6.75 ERA in his career. Lannan allowed two runs in the first inning as four straight batters, starting with a Jayson Werth double that nearly knocked over the left field fence, reached base with two outs. He dodged trouble for the next three innings and then created his biggest jam in fifth: an infield single by Polanco and a walk to Werth that put two on with none out.
Riggleman trudged to the mound and talked to Lannan, the infielders gathered around. In his last three starts before getting sent down, when he had a 10.38 ERA, Lannan had failed to pitch five innings.
"That was a huge spot for us, for my confidence," Lannan said.
Lannan needed strikeouts, and he had not produced one all game. He struck out Cody Ransom looking at a sinker over the inside corner. He struck out Ben Francisco flailing at a 3-2 change-up off the outside corner. He struck out Domonic Brown swinging over another change-up, the eighth pitch of the at-bat.
Three straight strikeouts and Lannan's day was over. Lannan induced 10 groundouts and just one fly out, "an indication to me he's getting a little bit closer," Riggleman said. He finished with four straight scoreless innings, 96 pitches, seven hits and one walk.
"From the last time I saw him to now, it's a huge improvement," catcher Wil Nieves said. "Today, he was relaxed. I saw in his face he was calm. That's good. I like what I saw today, because I know how he can pitch. He looked to me how he was the first two years."
It was not good enough, though, to win. Drew Storen, pitching in the closer's role for the second straight night, retired all six batters he faced in the ninth and 10th innings on 19 pitches, striking out two. Adam Dunn hit a two-run homer off Cole Hamels, against whom he had been 1 for 17 with nine strikeouts. Ryan Zimmerman went 2 for 5 with a two-run double.
The Nationals built a 4-2 lead, but Miguel Batista allowed two runs in the seventh that tied the score. Dunn could have won it in the 10th, but José Contreras struck him out with Nyjer Morgan on third and two outs.
All of it led to the 11th. The game-winning rally started when Wilson Valdez pushed a bunt single to the right side. Balester touched first after a flip from Dunn milliseconds late, reaching for the bag twice with his foot. "I think that double-clutch thing kind of screwed [the umpire] up a little bit," Balester said.
He got the next two outs -- a sacrifice bunt from pinch-hitting Roy Oswalt and a fly to center by Jimmy Rollins -- quickly. Up came Polanco, who was already 16 for 39 against the Nationals this year and 2 for 5 on the afternoon. Polanco shot a 1-1, 96-mph fastball up the middle for a single, scoring Valdez with the winner. Werth followed by turning a hanging curve into an insurance RBI double off the scoreboard in right-center field.
"I got to get the ball down," Balester said. "That's pretty much the name of the game."