By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 30, 2010; 12:52 AM
Inning by inning, zeros kept appearing on the visitor's line of the scoreboard at Nationals Park. They came at the expense of a St. Louis lineup that included the likes of three-time MVP Albert Pujols and courtesy of Washington starter John Lannan, who until this month found such affirmation of his pitching in scarce supply.
The lone imperfection - and only a single run at that - came in the seventh, but by then Lannan had put the Nationals in position to win consecutively for the first time this month. Lannan's teammates made sure his best outing of the season wouldn't be wasted in completing a 4-2 victory before 24,782 that gave the Nationals their third win of this four-game series.
"He was outstanding," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "It was a real good outing, a strong outing for him. Kind of a hot day. He minimized his pitches and was able to go deep in the game."
In making the Cardinals more uncomfortable as they pursue a playoff berth, Lannan scattered eight hits over 7 2/3 innings and issued no walks while striking out four, throwing 93 pitches. Over the first six innings, he faced three batters over the minimum and induced double plays in the second and fourth. Among his many highlights was striking out Pujols to end the sixth.
It was the first time this season that Lannan (6-6) has allowed just one run while lasting at least seven innings. His other comparable start came at San Diego on May 28, when he gave up two runs, one earned, in seven innings, but Lannan soon thereafter began encountering significant control issues.
There would be none of that on Sunday, and Lannan even helped himself at the plate with a two-run double in the second that gave Washington a 2-0 lead. More remarkable was that the two-out hit on a 3-2 count came off Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright (17-9), a leading contender for the Cy Young Award this season.
The Nationals (56-75) added two runs the next inning on Michael Morse's two-run homer. After the first four-hit game of his career in Saturday night's 14-5 win, the reserve right fielder continued his torrid pace against St. Louis (69-59) with two more hits to raise his average to .294.
Things then got a bit testy in the top of the ninth, when Nationals reliever Drew Storen threw behind Matt Holliday. The Cardinals' cleanup hitter glared at Storen before Manager Tony La Russa approached home plate umpire Rob Drake. Riggleman eventually came out too, and play finally resumed after a lengthy delay and warnings issued.
"I have a lot of respect for Matt, and that's something I wouldn't do," Storen said when asked if he threw at Holliday. "I was just trying to work in. The ball got away from me, and like I said, I got a bunch of respect for him and Tony La Russa, so it's not something I'm looking to do."
Washington's fifth win in 11 games also included the continued reemergence of Adam Dunn. The slugging first baseman had been in an 8-for-65 slump entering Saturday but belted a homer and a double and had five RBI that night in a display of power that energized the team. Dunn didn't put on that type of show on Sunday, but he went 2 for 3 with a walk and two runs and raised his average to .263.
"We played good, clean baseball," Riggleman said. "We got a pretty good offensive ballclub, and our pitchers pitch for contact. We don't strike out a lot of people, so when we play good defense like we did in this series, we're tough to beat."
Recently the same can be said of Lannan, who is 4-1 this month and appears settled into his standing again as one of the team's top starters after he had been fighting his delivery early this season. That rocky beginning was the Nationals' first indication that not only were Lannan's mechanics in need of repair but so was his confidence. Even Lannan himself later conceded the process wasn't working.
In mid-May, Lannan missed a start because of elbow discomfort, and the thought was that ailment was the mitigating factor in his travails. Lannan worked through the injury and for a time appeared back to the level of his past two seasons, when he twice was the opening day starter.
Then after a functional outing in his first start in June but still doubting his command, Lannan unraveled. He gave up 15 earned runs and 31 hits in 13 innings over his next three starts, prompting Nationals management to demote him to Class AA Harrisburg. There, Lannan would have ample opportunity to correct mechanical flaws and, most important, rediscover his self-belief.
Based on his outing on Sunday and for all but one game since getting recalled, it's mission accomplished.
"There's still room for improvement," Lannan said. "Last two years, I've been at the same point, and now it's time to move past that mentally and get better."