Lannan Can't Win For Losing

Another Quality Start Ends in Poor Finish: Rangers 5, Nationals 3

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 23, 2008; Page E01

By now, John Lannan's pitching mastery is hidden, writ small like fine print, overshadowed by all the losses that tend to accompany his finest work. The end result always speaks loudest, which is why Lannan, standing in front of his clubhouse locker yesterday, again assessed his outing with chilled enthusiasm. He lamented the two mistakes that reduced a near-flawless start into merely another good one.

Conditioned to this routine, Lannan said all the right things. At some point, the offense will come around. At some point, odds will even, and one of the most puzzling statistical aberrations of this baseball season will recede to the mean. At some point, an all-star caliber pitcher will win a game.

Though Lannan didn't earn a decision in yesterday's 5-3 loss to the Texas Rangers, his trademark misfortune was decisive all by itself. Again, the left-hander's usual dependability was subverted by an absent offense and a hole-digging bullpen. As a result, another encouraging start from Lannan -- the Washington Nationals' left-hander contributed six innings and just two runs -- was followed by the familiar discouragement, a job well done with no reward.

"It's out of his control," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. "That's what I tell him. Worry about what you can control."

Perhaps no pitcher in baseball this season has a rockier relationship with luck than Lannan. Among qualifying starters, those on pace for at least 162 innings pitched this season, nobody in baseball has received poorer run support. Before yesterday, Washington had scored nine runs total in Lannan's previous six starts. In fitting form, the Nationals -- who collected just one hit (by Lannan himself) in the first five innings against Texas -- only rallied to tie the game once their starter left. Two home runs, including one from Willie Harris, who pinch-hit for Lannan, created a 3-3 game -- a stage for bullpen-caused chaos.

Lannan's record (4-8), coupled with Washington's record in Lannan's games (4-11) draws a troubling picture. This season, Lannan has pitched 15 games. Eleven of those meet the standard for a "quality start" -- six innings or more, three earned runs or fewer. But really, a quality start denotes averageness; a quality start can yield an ERA above the league's average (4.18).

Lannan's excellence meets a higher standard. No pitcher in baseball this season -- not Cliff Lee, not Tim Lincecum, not Carlos Zambrano -- has more starts that qualify as "super-quality," six innings or more with two runs or fewer. Lannan has met that benchmark 11 times.

What does it mean, then? First, that the Nationals -- with a .267 winning percentage in Lannan's games -- can play historically bad baseball in spite of model starting pitching. And second, that Lannan is on the butt end of a fateful joke. The Nationals, by inverse coincidence, are 13-3 when Tim Redding pitches.

"He's pitching tremendous," Manager Manny Acta said of Lannan. "He knows that everybody here is paying attention to how good he's pitching and how he's doing. Would I want him to have six, seven more wins? Yes, I do. But he knows what he's doing, and everybody here appreciates what he's doing, and he's just one guy of our team. He's doing his part, and we just haven't been able to get him a few wins."

With even average run support, Lannan, whose ERA fell yesterday to 3.34, should have a flip-flopped record and some support for rookie of the year. Instead, he's received pep talks from Acta, General Manager Jim Bowden, and St. Claire about staying positive, and controlling only what he can.

"Yeah, they've just tried to make sure that I'm mentally all right, because it's kind of tough going out there and having the same kind of start and same result," Lannan said. "But, you know, today was better. We battled. Came out with the no-decision. I'm just trying to make sure I don't get down on myself, because I am battling and there's not much I can do."

Against the Rangers, only a few pitches accounted for the damage. A down-the-heart fastball in the fourth to Brandon Boggs smacked a billboard just beyond the visitor's bullpen in left. Another mistake, a change-up to Ian Kinsler in the sixth, turned into a blast that gave Texas a 2-0 lead. "I wish I could have both of them back," Lannan said.

Perhaps the most painful -- and frightening -- moment came in between those home runs, when Texas catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia roped a line drive off Lannan's mitt, a haymaker bruising his right palm. The manager, the trainer, the catcher and the entire Washington infield rushed to the mound to check on Lannan. During the next half-inning, he treated his right hand with ammonia. Postgame X-rays were negative, though today, Lannan will undergo a CAT scan.

"I will not miss a start," Lannan said.

Acta, for one, felt relief given the circumstances. Saltalamacchia's ball was hard-hit, Acta said, and initially, Lannan's hand was shaking from the pain. "The ball just hit him on the palm of the hand," Acta said, "but still, you have bones over there." Lannan, he concluded, had been fortunate.

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