John Lannan was sure that he would be on the Nationals’ Opening Day Roster. He had outlasted an injured Chien-Ming Wang in spring training, pitched well enough in Florida and had a track record of success in the big leagues.
So the news that he had, in fact, not made the club, as he had the previous four years, but would instead start the year at Triple-A Syracuse, came as a shock. Lannan has toiled there ever since, only returning to the majors on Saturday night with his team in need of another starting pitcher for a day-night doubleheader.
Uncertainty has defined Lannan’s season and it will continue to do so. But he at least let team management know that he still has something to contribute yet, shaking off a rough start to throw seven strong innings in a 5-2 win over the Atlanta Braves.
Lannan, who was returned to Syracuse following the victory, allowed two early runs, but held his nerve over the next six innings. The Braves managed five hits, walked twice and Lannan hit two batters. But only five of the 21 outs he recorded came via a fly ball – a sure sign that the 26-year-old is in good form. Atlanta grounded out 11 times against Lannan and one of those was a double play. He also struck out three batters.
““The whole situation, it’s a business,” Lannan said. “As much as you love the game, there’s stuff that comes along with it. It is what it is. I was kind of upset when it first happened. But now, as things are unfolding and things are going well for us, I’m really excited to help this team out down the stretch.”
It was a golden opportunity for Lannan, who in effect was auditioning for a big-league job once Washington ace Stephen Strasburg is shut down sometime in September. Wang is currently on another rehab assignment as he recovers from a hip injury. And the Nats could always make a trade for another starter at the July 31 trade deadline. But this was a chance to prove himself again. Lannan has posted a sub-4.00 ERA three times in the past four seasons so the club’s decision makers know what he can do. They just needed to see it on Saturday – a little added pressure in a game that had high stakes anyway after Washington entered on a three-game losing streak that cut its National League East lead to 1 ½ games.
“I don’t think too many guys have experienced that in their careers,” closer Tyler Clippard said. “[Lannan has] had nothing but success at the big-league level and done such great things for our team up here. It just is a testament to how good we are, how good our staff is. He deserves to be here…And when he gets here he’s going to contribute in a big way for us down the stretch. I think he understands that.”
Lannan admittedly hasn’t excelled at Syracuse. He is 6-9 there with a 4.89 ERA. Four times in his last 10 starts with the Chiefs he allowed five runs or more. But he has also mixed moments of brilliance with his struggles. Just last month he had a complete-game four-hitter at Louisville. Lannan pitched into the seventh inning in a game at Durham – but he walked five batters that night, too. It’s been that kind of season.
“But it doesn’t really matter where you pitch, it’s supposed to be the same,” Lannan said. “I’ve been working my butt off down there, going out every start and trying to be able to come up here and do the things I did tonight.”
On Saturday, Lannan was in trouble from the start when leadoff batter Michael Bourn bunted for a single. Lannan induced an immediate double play, but a walk and then an RBI double by Chipper Jones undid his good deed. Jones then scored on Freddie Freeman’s base hit. After three losses in a row, the Nats were suddenly down early again.
Meanwhile, Atlanta starter Randall Delgado cruised through four innings and pushed Washington’s scoreless string to 15 innings dating to Danny Espinosa’s ninth-inning homer on Friday night. They were shut out in Game 1 of the double header. But Delgado wild pitched home a run in the fifth inning and the first three runners reached base against him in the sixth. A fielder’s choice ground out by Ian Desmond tied the game and in the seventh Roger Bernadina’s two-out RBI single put them ahead 3-2. Bernadina capped a 5-for-7 day after taking over for injured center fielder Bryce Harper in the third inning of Game 1.
Harper didn’t start Game 2, but he did smack a pinch-hit single the other way in the eighth inning, stole second on his swollen left ankle and raced around third on Espinosa’s base hit. An error by Braves shortstop Paul Janish allowed Espinosa to take on the fifth run later in that frame. Clippard retired three of the four Braves batters he faced in the ninth to earn his 16th save. And for once this season, Lannan knew he contributed in the place he’s wanted to be all along.
“I’ve been through a lot with these guys, and I do feel part of it,” Lannan said. “But the game goes on. If I’m here or not, these guys are still going to bust their butts. But I know they’re thinking about me and I’m thinking about them. And hopefully we can play together in September.”
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