NEW YORK -- The storyline, and the comparison, was too obvious to ignore.
Stephen Strasburg was supposed to start Wednesday night's series finale in New York. John Lannan instead took his spot and now will make four starts down the stretch run of a pennant race in place of baseball's most-hyped young pitcher.
Those who try to compare Lannan to Strasburg, though, haven't really been following the Nationals, this year or any previous year. Lannan simply isn't Strasburg. Nor has he ever tried to be.
Truth be told, Lannan isn't like any other member of the Nationals' rotation. He doesn't have Strasburg's dominating repertoire or Jordan Zimmermann's slider or Gio Gonzalez's curveball or Ross Detwiler's fastball or Edwin Jackson's experience. And he knows it.
"This rotation's different," Lannan said. "There's something about it. Every five days when Stephen was in it, it's just different. Day after day, there's no giving up. I go out there and I had to just not try to do what they do. I'm not necessarily that type of pitcher, but I do like to compete. And that's the one thing I did see: them competing. And I can do that."
So that's exactly what Lannan did Wednesday night. He didn't so much dominate the Mets as he navigated his way through their lineup. He threw lots of strikes. He kept the ball down in the zone. He induced a ton of groundballs. And he didn't allow a run over 5 23 innings, paving the way for the Nationals to pull off a 2-0 victory and a series sweep at Citi Field.
And thanks to the Brewers' sweep of the Braves, plus the continued collapse of nearly every NL wild-card contender, the Nationals now boast an 8 12-game lead in the NL East entering this weekend's showdown in Atlanta and a 15-game lead for the league's final playoff berth with only 19 games to go.
"This was a big series," manager Davey Johnson said. "We needed to kinda drive the nail in their coffin here and come into Atlanta with a good frame of mind. And that's what we're doing."
All that angst about the Strasburg shutdown and how the Nats would replace him? Nobody in the visitors clubhouse at the end of the night seemed too worried about that.
"I don't think anybody in here was concerned about what John was going to give us," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "We've all seen him enough. ... We don't think he has to prove anything to us. We've seen him pitch. He's done well and he worked his tail off down there in Triple-A, and he comes up and picks up right where he left off, if not better."
Indeed, combined with his back-to-back shutouts in late-August to close out his season with Syracuse, Lannan has now tossed 23 23 consecutive scoreless innings. And in his three big-league starts this year, he's now 3-0 with a 2.41 ERA.
All this from a guy who five months ago was stunningly shipped away to the minors and requested a trade from the only organization he's ever known. Feels like an eternity now, doesn't it?
"If you're not pulling for him, you're not human," reliever Sean Burnett said. "To see what he went through in late March and to deal with what he did and the way he handled it ... he earned a lot of respect in this clubhouse. We're all pulling for him, and a lot of fans are, too."
The Nationals needed Lannan to be as effective as he was Wednesday night, because they weren't offering much support at the plate. Wowed by Mets rookie Matt Harvey, who struck out 10 batters in only five innings, they had to settle for a pair of solo homers and nothing else from what has been the majors' most potent lineup in recent weeks.
Ryan Zimmerman's leadoff blast in the fourth got things started. Desmond's solo shot in the eighth off Jon Rauch provided the insurance.
That still set the stage for a tense bottom of the ninth. With Tyler Clippard unavailable after working the previous two nights, Johnson decided to entrust this lead to Burnett, who hadn't pitched in 10 days due to elbow inflammation.
"I didn't wanna go to Clip or Drew Storen, period," the manager said. "Especially Clip. I wanted to give him a couple days off. If I pitched him today, it would have been four out of five, and I wanted to give him a couple days off and have him fresh for Atlanta."
Turns out Johnson needed Storen to finish this one off after Burnett allowed a two-out single to put men on the corners and bring the potential winning run to the plate.
"Being 10 days and not seeing hitters, that situation -- I was a little geeked up," Burnett said. "But all-in-all, it was alright. Just got a couple balls up."
Storen, who saved 43 games last season as Washington's primary closer but after missing three months following elbow surgery has ceded the job this year to Clippard, wasted little time getting pinch-hitter Daniel Murphy to fly out to center and secure his second save of 2012.
"It's just part of the bullpen life," Storen said. "You just stay on your toes and never assume anything."
That same mentality might apply to Lannan right now. After a surreal year, most of it spent in the minors, he's trying not to assume anything and just live in the moment.
Everyone else can try to compare him to Strasburg. He's just thrilled to have a chance at last to perform for the Nationals in a pennant race.
"Just being on this team right now is incredible," he said. "You can not only see it, but you can kind of feel the chemistry and everything. It's something special, and I'm just proud to be a part of it right now."