Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
John Lannan tossed seven strong innings to beat the Diamondbacks.
But some portion of that confidence had to disappear two months ago when Lannan, boasting a 5.76 ERA and serving up base hits at an astonishing rate, found himself driving to Harrisburg. The guy who took the ball on Opening Day each of the last two seasons, the guy who followed Barack Obama on the mound at Nationals Park on April 5, was suddenly nothing but a Class AA pitcher.
"It was a wake-up call," he said. "Everything's a lot different down there. I'm just glad to be back."
Back, not only in body but in spirit as well. The John Lannan who tossed seven innings of two-run ball tonight, beating the Diamondbacks 4-2, looked and felt like a big-league pitcher. He hit his spots, working both the inside and outside corners of the plate. And most importantly, he stood tall on the mound, believing once again he was good enough to get major-league batters out.
"I just feel good out there," he said. "I feel confident in my stuff."
A confident Lannan is an effective Lannan. And an effective Lannan, now 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA since his return, is a big piece to the Nationals' puzzle. He may never again start on Opening Day -- who are we kidding, that role is reserved for Stephen Strasburg for at least the next six years -- but he can certainly start sometime during the season's first week and play an important role on a contending club. This is, after all, a guy with a 4.15 ERA in 87 career starts. Ace material? No. Serviceable big-league starter? Yes.
"You know, he gave us 206 innings last year, has led the club in innings the last couple years, and starts and consistency," Jim Riggleman said. "It's two wins in a row now. Hopefully it's something we can build on with John."
Perhaps Lannan's biggest strength is that opposing hitters are completely underwhelmed by him. They watch him from the on-deck circle, throwing 88 mph fastballs around the strike zone, and they start licking their chops.
But when he's on, when his sinker is darting down and away from right-handed batters and his breaking ball is darting down and away from left-handed hitters, he can get anyone in a big-league uniform to bounce a routine grounder to third.
"He has a 5.00 ERA for a reason, I guess," said Arizona's Mark Reynolds, who went 0-for-2 with a walk and two groundballs to third. "Today he had one of those games where he was hitting the corners and not really leaving much to hit."
Lannan will happily let the opposition keep talking about him that way, provided he continues to prove them wrong. And provided his teammates still believe in him, which they do.
"We all have confidence in him," Ryan Zimmerman said. "It would be different if he came up for a couple of starts and did well and then came down. But we've all been with him for ... two years now. We know what he's capable of doing. We also know that everyone goes through things like that, especially pitchers. We had confidence he could come back."
Do three solid starts ensure Lannan's resurrection is complete? No, he's going to need to sustain this over the next month-and-a-half.
But the positive results so far, from a guy who two weeks ago was an afterthought and presumed by some to have stood on a big-league mound for the last time, are as encouraging as anything the Nationals have seen since the All-Star break.
"He looked really good tonight," Zimmerman said. "That's good for us."