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Lannan Suffers Another Tough Loss

Dodgers 3, Nationals 2

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 26, 2008; 2:26 AM

LOS ANGELES, July 25 -- On all sides, the odds closed in on John Lannan, narrowing his margin for error into nothing. He tried to block such big picture thoughts. He tried, all the while, to rediscover his composure before he ran out of time.

There he stood, sixth inning, backed into the kind of corner where only a zero helps you escape. Though his team led, Lannan's offense had given scant reason to believe its run total would increase. And, though Lannan had dominated the game's first half, he had lost that stroke against the previous three batters, all of whom stood on the bases.

Typical of Washington's season -- and especially Lannan's -- victory depended on pitching perfection. And because Lannan dazzled for every inning but one, he lost. What happened in the sixth inning, once Lannan faced a bases-loaded, no outs situation, stung the Nationals with a 3-2 defeat Friday night at Dodger Stadium and secured another outing for the rookie left-hander in which he pitched well enough to win, if only he pitched for a team other than his own.

Entering the sixth, Washington led, 1-0. Lannan looked like Lannan, a 23-year-old who has, in the words of Manager Manny Acta, "proven time and time again that he is part of our future here." Through five, he had allowed just two hits. Even in tenuous situations, he had responded with his best. A leadoff hit in the second begat a double play, a clockwork 5-4-3. A leadoff walk in the fourth begat another double play, this one started by second baseman Felipe López, whose pivot and throw converted a Russell Martin roller into a 4-6-3.

Shutout intact, command still sharp, Lannan then faced Los Angeles' order for the third time. To start the sixth, however, he allowed back-to-back singles, the first to Juan Pierre, who he'd started with an 0-2 count. "I had him," Lannan later said, shaking his head. "I had him the whole game. That breaking ball was up."

The damage piled up. Lannan served up a Matt Kemp single, hit just as hard as Pierre's. He pegged the next batter, Russell Martin, in the elbow. When he started the next batter, Jeff Kent, with two balls, pitching coach Randy St. Claire rose from the dugout, placing the pause button on a growing frenzy.

"He had to get his focus back," St. Claire said.

Stellar all season, exceptional in parts of it, Lannan had taken the mound earlier that night having surrendered just one run in his previous two games, a span of 12 innings. In both starts, he earned wins -- a tidal change in fortune for a pitcher whose run support has ranged between insulting and immeasurable this season. Even so, Washington's production, or lack thereof, against Dodgers hurler Chad Billingsley felt familiar. In the third, singles by Paul Lo Duca and López and sacrifices by Lannan and Willie Harris (one a bunt, the other a flyout) helped Washington get on the board first. That was the team's first run in 14 innings.

By the sixth inning, then, Lannan faced that familiar mental tightrope walk. He had to be perfect, without thinking about being perfect.

"Well, with Kent up there, I went 2-0, and I was overthrowing a lot. ... Randy came out and settled me down," Lannan said. "He told me just to back off a little bit. Just hit my spots. That whole inning I was all over the place. I was trying to throw too hard, and just got away from what I was doing the whole game."

Meeting over, Lannan tried to escape. He battled back against Kent, forcing a string of fouls and, then, a lineout to shortstop. Next, Lannan faced Nomar Garciaparra, who looked at ball one. Lannan tried next to brush the outside corner with a fastball. Garciaparra grooved it to right-center. Two scored. By the time the inning ended, a ground-out to second had pushed in another run. Lannan's record fell to 6-10.

"He had very good command of his pitches early in the game," Manager Manny Acta said. "Whenever he got in trouble he made the pitch to get the double play or the outs. They hit him, but not that hard. I'm proud of the young man. He continues to go out there; nothing bothers him about our lack of scoring runs for him."

The outcome -- Washington's fourth loss in a row -- was doomed by the familiar. Even after adding one more run in the eighth, Jesús Flores struck out against Jonathan Broxton with two on. In the ninth, the Nationals went down 1-2-3. Broxton had his third save.

Still, after the game, Lannan felt compelled to talk about something new, not something painfully old. That's because, after the sixth inning, Lannan regrouped. He pitched one more inning. And for him, it made the night palatable.

"I definitely learned a lot today," he said.

Asked to elaborate, he said, "Well, I'm not an overpowering pitcher.

I've got to go out there and hit my spots. That's what I've been doing all year. So, I can't just go out there and do too much. I learned that when I went back out there in the seventh. I didn't do too much, got a couple ground balls and got the team back in the dugout."

Said St. Claire of the seventh inning: "He got his focus back."

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