Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Ivan Rodriguez is congratulated after his fifth-inning homer.
For Lannan, though, a return to previous form was never the intention. He was determined to come back and pitch better than at any previous time in his career.
"That was the goal coming out of spring training," he said. "I was just confused on how to do it."
It's safe to say Lannan has figured it out, because his results since returning from Harrisburg one month ago have indeed been better than anything he put together his previous 2 1/2 years in the big leagues.
Tonight's seven-inning, one-run, seven-strikeout showing in a 9-2 victory over the Pirates was the latest in a string of top-notch starts by the left-hander. In seven starts since his return, he's now 5-1 with a 2.93 ERA, not to mention 29 strikeouts and only six walks in 43 innings.
Lades and gentlemen, meet the new John Lannan.
"He came back, got his confidence back, and he's on a roll now," said bench coach John McLaren, who once again filled in as manager while Jim Riggleman finished serving his suspension.
Confidence has always been the key for Lannan, who doesn't possess the greatest "stuff" in the majors but has had faith in his ability to get hitters out. When it didn't happen earlier this season, that confidence was shattered, and Lannan's technique to try to overcome it was to try to become something he wasn't.
"I thought that trying harder — physically trying harder, physically trying to pitch better — was the way to do it," he said. "But 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."
Lannan sought advice from everyone he could think of — pitching coach Steve McCatty, veteran rotation mates Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis, even members of the Nationals lineup — and emerged with a better understanding of how to improve his game at this level.
The key, he deduced, was not to physically try to overpower hitters but to mentally out-think them. Contemplate each pitch before throwing it. Understand what pitch has the best chance to be successful in each situation. Don't ever let up.
The improvement is obvious.
"The previous two years, I basically had the same numbers," said Lannan, who went 9-15 with a 3.91 ERA in 2008, then 9-13 with a 3.88 ERA last season. "I was really struggling to get wins and going deep in ballgames. Now I'm taking the next step mentally and really attacking guys and throwing each pitch with a purpose."
And in a surprising twist, that new approach has turned Lannan into something of a strikeout pitcher. OK, he may never come close to resembling Randy Johnson on the mound, but Lannan is showing he can strike guys out on a more regular basis than the past.
Prior to his demotion, Lannan was striking out a paltry 2.88 batters per nine innings, among the worst rates in baseball. Since his return, he's striking out 6.07 batters per nine innings, more than doubling his previous rate. One reason for that: He's been more aggressive in throwing four-seam fastballs inside to right-handed batters. Instead of being able to sit on sinkers away, batters now have to be prepared for a fastball in on their hands.
"He's moving the ball around," catcher Ivan Rodriguez said. "He's throwing in and out, using all his pitches. When you have a pitcher that uses all his pitches and throws them for strikes, it's going to be tough for a hitter."
Lannan isn't the only one making adjustments on the Nats' roster. Rodriguez himself made a key alteration to his approach at the plate tonight, and saw immediate dividends. After working with hitting coach Rick Eckstein, Pudge realized he had gotten away from his longtime approach of taking the ball the other way to right field.
After rolling over an outside pitch and grounded out to short in the second inning tonight, Rodriguez reminded himself to look to right field first. Sure enough, he poked a two-hit hit off the wall in the fourth, then drilled a two-run homer in the fifth, then singled again to right in the seventh for perhaps his best offensive performance of the season.
"That's what I've got to do," he said. "I've got to stay inside of the ball. My bat is very quick, so I can wait for the ball and stay inside the ball and hit it. Today it was good. I stayed inside the ball after the first time up [when] I just rolled over to shortstop. I just told myself I had to stay back. I did the next at-bat, and I did it the whole night."
At 38, Rodriguez's best days are obviously behind him. He continues to work hard and maintain a level good enough to play on a regular basis, and he'll be back next season as the Nationals' No. 1 catcher, slowly handing over the role to Wilson Ramos.
At 25, Lannan's best days may still be coming. A guy who looked like a pretty consistent big-league starter the last two years, then looked lost the first half of this year, suddenly looks like a guy who can be an important part of the Nats' rotation in 2011 and beyond.
"Absolutely," Rodriguez said. "He's going to be here for a long time. He's going to be in our rotation for a long time."
Pretty amazing for a guy who was optioned to Class AA 2 1/2 months ago. Simply returning to the majors was no small feat, but for Lannan, that was never going to be enough. He believed all along he could come back a better pitcher than he ever was before. And over an impressive stretch of seven starts, he's making believers out of a lot of others.
"I think I'm taking the next step," he said.