(Matt Slocum/AP)

“I’ve competed for a spot every year, I feel,” Lannan said. “I never took a spot for granted. It just drives me to learn something every day and be a better pitcher.”

Competing to make a rotation he once headed, Lannan made his first spring start tonight against the Mets. After slow start – a leadoff walk followed by a stolen base and an RBI single – Lannan settled down and pitched three innings with only 43 pitches, 27 of them strikes. Lannan allowed just the one run, with two more singles and a strikeout mixed in.

Lannan, who started on opening day in 2009 and 2010 and last year began the season as the No. 2 starter, seemingly faces long odds to earn a spot. Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson are locks. Lannan has a minor league option, whereas Chien-Ming Wang, who looked sharp in a minor league start earlier today, does not. He can be traded now, whereas Wang cannot be dealt until late May. He could potentially pitch out of the bullpen, whereas Wang, with a surgically repaired shoulder that takes a while to get loose, cannot.

Through the Nationals’ acquisition of several pitchers, and no fault of his own, Lannan could be squeezed out after several seasons as a solid contributor.

Lannan “led our team in wins last year,” Manager Davey Johnson said before the game. “I like him. He’s only going to get better. He’s learning more about himself.

“With our new additions, I’m kind of in a situation where I’ve got six or seven starters that I really like. I’ll do just what I tell the general manager to do – keep an open mind.”

Lannan, as is typical in spring, struggled to find a good feel right away and walked leadoff hitter Andres Torres. Then, after Torres stole second on Lannan, he left a change-up up in the strike zone to Daniel Murphy, who smoked an RBI single to center. Lannan quickly escaped further with a double play ball, fielded nicely by second baseman Steve Lombardozzi.

“After that, I think I got into a little bit of a rhythm at the end of the second,” Lannan said. “In the third I left one over the plate to [Ruben] Tejada, but besides that I thought I made some good pitches.”

Before the game, Lannan made what is, for him, an annual adjustment: figuring out the right way to warm up. He focused on counting backward from the first pitch, mapping out when to start long-tossing, when to stretch his legs, so he would not feel rushed before the game.

“It’s not that big of a deal, but you want that routine,” Lannan said. “You want everything as a pitcher to be routine. You want to repeat your delivery. You want to repeat everything you do the day you pitch.”

This will be an important spring for Lannan, but he insists he’ll maintain the same outlook as he always has.

“You really can’t look at results too much,” Lannan said. “I’m competing for a spot, and I’m competing out there against teams I’ll be facing in the regular season. I’m trying to get work in, but I’m also trying to compete.”