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Lannan looks better than ever as Nats top Pirates, 9-2

Washington Nationals catcher Ivan Rodriguez blocks the plate to tag out Pittsburgh Pirates' Lastings Milledge, who tried to score from first on a hit by Ronny Cedeno in the eighth inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Sept. 4, 2010. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Washington Nationals catcher Ivan Rodriguez blocks the plate to tag out Pittsburgh Pirates' Lastings Milledge, who tried to score from first on a hit by Ronny Cedeno in the eighth inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Sept. 4, 2010. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic) (Keith Srakocic - AP)
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Washington Post staff writer
Sunday, September 5, 2010; 12:02 AM

PITTSBURGH - John Lannan had a goal when he arrived at spring training this year, and, he realizes now, he had a problem. He wanted to become a different kind of pitcher, to reach a new level. "I was confused," he said Saturday night, "on how to do it."

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Lannan needed a half-season of struggle and detour through Class AA Harrisburg, but now the confusion is gone and the goal, he believes, has been reached. The Washington Nationals hoped Lannan, without the pressure of the majors, could salvage his season and recapture the form that made him their opening day starter. He has been better than that.

On Saturday night, Lannan continued his resurgence as the Nationals' offense powered him to a 9-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates before 30,263 at PNC Park. He followed the best start of his season with another gem, allowing one run on five hits and a walk while striking out a season-high seven. He earned his fifth win in seven starts since his return and raised a question: Is he not only fixed, but better than he's ever been?

"Yes," Lannan said. "I'm taking the next step."

The Nationals - with bench coach John McLaren replacing suspended Jim Riggleman as manager for the second and final game and with Adam Dunn out with a sore hamstring - gave Lannan more support than he needed. Ivan Rodriguez went 3 for 5 with a two-run homer and four RBI, his two-RBI single the centerpiece of a five-run fourth inning. Ian Desmond added three more hits, raising his average since the all-star break to .342. The Nationals used their outburst to snap a three-game losing streak and put themselves in position to earn their first series victory on the road in 17 series.

The victory paled in importance to the primary reason for it: Lannan is back. He is 5-1 with a 2.93 ERA since he returned from the minors. On Saturday night, he recorded seven strikeouts and nine groundball outs, not including three errors - two by Desmond, who leads the league in them - on groundballs. Three of Lannan's five allowed hits came on rollers through the infield.

For him, those are perfect results, and they reflected the change he made. Most seasons, Lannan settles into rhythm early in spring training. This year, he searched. When the Nationals demoted him, he had little confidence and no trust his pitches would cross the plate where and how he wanted them to.

In Harrisburg, Lannan came to the realization he missed back in spring training: He had been trying to pitch better to reach a new height. He actually needed to pitch smarter.

"It was a growing process," Lannan said. "I thought trying harder, physically trying to pitch better, was the way to do it. That's not how this game goes. The best pitchers are the ones that think about each pitch and really know what they're doing each pitch. That was what I really needed to get to."

The most telling difference from before and after for Lannan shows itself in his strikeout rate. Before he worked through his problems, Lannan struck out 2.9 batters per nine innings. After he fanned a season-high seven Saturday, Lannan has struck out 6.1 per nine innings since he returned to the rotation Aug. 1.

"I really don't try to strike anybody out," Lannan said. "They just happened tonight. My stuff has gotten a little better."

His teammates made it easy for him, especially Rodriguez. In his first at-bat, he grounded weakly to shortstop. He reminded himself what he and hitting coach Rick Eckstein have been drilling. "I just told myself I had to stay back," Rodriguez said. He needed to hit to the opposite field.

In his second at-bat, with the bases loaded in the fourth, Rodriguez clobbered a two-RBI single off the base of the right field wall. In his third at-bat, he smoked this third home run of the season into the right field bleachers. In his fourth at-bat, he drilled a single to right. Rodriguez, a likely Hall of Famer with a .291 on-base percentage, had a night out of his prime.

"I think he feels good about it," McLaren said. "He's such a competitor. He expects a lot of out himself. This guy was a primer, power-hitting superstar for a lot of years. Now he's going toward the end of his career, and he's still a real good player. I think a night like this reaffirms that he is a good player."

While Rodriguez provided a flashback, Lannan provided promise.

"He's going to be in the rotation for a long time," Rodriguez said. "A struggle came for him early in the season, but now he's the John Lannan everybody knows."

Actually, he might be better.

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