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With chance to clinch, Nats again turn to Lannan

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With chance to clinch, Nats again turn to Lannan

"John's my guy. I like John. And John can pitch. He led our club last year in wins." -- Davey Johnson on John Lannan, March 26

When Davey Johnson made that pronouncement during the final week of spring training, announcing John Lannan would open the season as the Nationals' No. 5 starter, little did he or anyone else know how the next six months would unfold.

One week later, of course, Johnson informed Lannan he would be opening the season in Syracuse, not Washington, a surprise demotion that prompted the left-hander to request a trade.

Six months later, Lannan remains a National. After spending the majority of the season at Class AAA, he has been back in the big leagues since Sept. 1, reinserted into the rotation after Stephen Strasburg was shut down.

And now, he'll be asked to pitch the Nationals to the NL East title.

Unable to clinch the division over the weekend in St. Louis, the Nationals return home for their final series of the regular season, needing to beat the Phillies just once to set off a champagne celebration on South Capitol Street. And wouldn't you know the man Johnson will hand the ball to tonight is none other than John Lannan.

The 28-year-old lefty has already started (and won) some of the most important games of the Nationals' season. Summoned from Syracuse to pitch the second half of a July 21 doubleheader against a Braves team that had trimmed its deficit in the NL East to 1 12 games, he tossed seven strong innings to earn the victory and start a six-game Nationals winning streak.

Lannan returned two weeks later for another doubleheader, this time against the Marlins, and again notched a quality start en route to another win.

He has since made three more starts over the last three weeks, taking over Strasburg's rotation spot and tossing 5 23 scoreless innings against the Mets before then getting roughed up by the Dodgers in a no-decision.

The July win over the Braves was one of the Nationals' most important of the season, but last week's win in Philadelphia might have been the most important of Lannan's season. Tortured by the Phillies throughout his career, he marched into Citizens Bank Park and allowed two runs over 5 23 innings to improve to 4-0 and exorcise one of his biggest demons.

That game, more than any other, leaves the Nationals feeling good about their chances tonight with Lannan back on the mound against the Phillies.

"We have all the confidence in the world," said fellow lefty Ross Detwiler, who suffered yesterday's loss to the Cardinals. "What is he, 4-0? There you go. He threw against them last week and did really well. He got us a huge win after I lost the game, and he came back and did what he needed to do to get the win."

Lannan, who declined to be interviewed following yesterday's game, still faces an uncertain future. He's unlikely to be included on the Nationals' postseason roster, barring a late turn of events. And he might not be tendered a contract over the winter, left to sign with another club after spending all of his eight professional seasons in the Nationals organization.

None of that, though, matters to him right now. He's often talked about his ability to get through this difficult season by focusing solely on the task immediately before him, not worrying about what would be next and never assuming anything would be handed to him.

Well, tonight, Lannan will be handed the ball for the most important game of his life and potentially the most significant game in Nationals history.

Few could have foreseen things playing out like this. But there is a certain poetic symmetry to it all. With a chance to clinch their first-ever division title, the Nationals will turn not to Strasburg or Gio Gonzalez or Jordan Zimmerman or Edwin Jackson or Ross Detwiler. They'll turn to a familiar face who, as it turns out, has perhaps had the confidence of his manager all along.

As Johnson said way back on March 26: "John's my guy."

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How MLB managers feeling heat, including Nationals' Davey Martinez, block it out

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How MLB managers feeling heat, including Nationals' Davey Martinez, block it out

WASHINGTON -- Davey Martinez likes to venture around town when the Nationals are home. He hunts for a quality bottle of red wine in local shops, at times takes a scooter to work and generally operates among the District denizens as if he wasn’t captaining a creaking ship.

When alone, he’s not overly recognizable but clear enough after a year-plus at the helm of the local baseball team to be noticed. The subsequent interactions, he claims, are often positive. Fans say they believe the Nationals will turn it around. They support him. They’re behind the team.

“Fans understand the game,” Martinez said Saturday. “Of course everybody wants to win. We want to win. Trust me. There’s not one guy in that clubhouse that goes out there and wants to give up a home run, wants to strikeout. We all want to win. But I hear a lot of, ‘You’re doing a great job.’ Positive. Things will turn around. I say, 'Thank you. Appreciate it.' I can tell you one thing, the guys are there to play hard.”

Anyone hurling tomatoes at him in the grocery store? Does he have bad interactions?

“If I did, I wouldn’t tell you, one,” Martinez said with a smile. “And two, you really don’t listen. I don’t even hear most of the stuff that’s going on during games. I really don’t.”

It’s that insular mentality that can help managers survive when the heat is cranked up around them. For Martinez, it’s worrying about “the boys” and not external noise. Chicago’s Joe Maddon prefers “circling the wagons” in a pressurized environment. In New York, where the subpar Nationals open a four-game series Monday night against the stumbling Mets, manager Mickey Callaway is taking shots head-on. MLB Network’s around-the-league show “Quick Pitch” showed Saturday night clips when the Mets announcers called the game “rock bottom.” The Mets were shut out the next day, and he was asked postgame about his job status on both Saturday and Sunday.

Martinez does not use social media. In his free time, he prefers to go hunting or fishing, not scroll through his phone to see any commentary about his job performance. Maddon, his mentor turned antagonist, felt waves early in Tampa Bay and even in Chicago when the Cubs careened to a 2-7 start this year, the last of his contract. He also stays away from Twitter and the radio dial.

“For me, it’s always about circling the wagons,” Maddon said. “As long as you’re pleased with what’s going on within the group, that’s all that matters. Quite frankly, talk radio, social media, that doesn’t matter. If you permit that to matter, that’s kind of your own fault. That’s there for entertainment purposes. That’s there to promote the game. Good. Barroom banter is tremendous. It’s necessary. I get it. But when it comes to running an organization, if you permit noise from the outside to impact your decisions inside, you deserve your fate.”

Rumblings around Martinez have leveled in the last week. A split in Los Angeles pushed back a miserable sweep in Milwaukee. A series win against Callaway’s Mets produced mathematical progress as opposed to any moralistic claims. A tight series against the Cubs ended with a 6-5 loss Sunday. The baseball since Los Angeles has been better.

That doesn’t remove Martinez from outside conversations about his, and the team’s, future. As things cook in New York, the Nationals remain in a desultory spot of eight games under .500 and eight games out. The coming schedule and recently increased health suggests opportunity. Tussling with the Mets is followed by Miami’s arrival at Nationals Park for four games. A quick two-game trip to Atlanta follows. 

Asked about Martinez’s situation, Maddon turned to the space most have pointed at this season: the bullpen. His words were delivered Friday afternoon.

“Love the team on the field,” Maddon said. “Love the talent on the field. Even without [Bryce] Harper being here. Their system has been outstanding. The young players are high-end. I think before you get all weirded out about Davey, let’s get a bullpen that plays consistently well. Then, you can find out what you got. I’m telling you, man, you could do everything right in a ballgame as a manager -- whether it’s pre the game or during the game, that if you can’t get those outs in the latter part of the game, it’s extremely frustrating for everybody.”

The Nationals bullpen was clobbered that evening. It remains last in the league in ERA by a large margin. 

If a Washington turnabout is nigh, it may come from a combination of further roster bolstering (Matt Adams and Ryan Zimmerman returning), the bullpen progressing to the mean and Juan Soto looking more like the 2018 National League Rookie of the Year runner-up. The two first basemen are close to ready. It would be hard for the bullpen to be worse. Five hits in three games for the 20-year-old Soto have him appearing back on track.

In New York, Callaway has little to lean on. His team picked up three hits in two games against lowly Miami during the weekend. Sunday, outspoken starter Noah Syndergaard came to his defense.

"I respect the hell out of Mickey," Syndergaard told reporters Sunday. "Mickey has tremendous leadership values. It's kind of [expletive] what's going on right now with this speculation that there could be a change because we're so early in the season and just one very small step away from putting this all together. It's certainly not on him."

Martinez has not arrived in that territory. Yet. But on the way there -- or out -- he’ll try to use a common tactic of building walls to prevent the outside from seeping inside.

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Nationals Roundup: Nats' spirited comeback falls short in rubber match against Cubs

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Nationals Roundup: Nats' spirited comeback falls short in rubber match against Cubs

The Washington Nationals lost to the Chicago Cubs, 6-5, Sunday to drop their record to 19-27.

Consider these news and notes as Washington hits the road for New York: 

Players Notes:

NATIONALS: 

Anthony Rendon gave Washington's offense a much-needed lift in the 6th launching a 3-run homer off Kyle Hendricks. After an initial rusty patch when returning from the injured list, he is back to his normal self and one of the most dangerous hitters in the National League.

Things continue to unravel for starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson. The veteran lasted just three innings Sunday night, allowing four hits, three runs and three walks. Just 30 of his 64 pitches were thrown for strikes. 

Howie Kendrick isn't showing any signs of slowing down. The 35-year-old blasted a laser home run to left to pull the Nats to within one run in the 7th. So far this season, Kendrick is hitting a long-ball every 15 at-bats. 

CUBS: 

Kyle Hendricks had it going up until the sixth inning when one Anthony Rendon swing made it a two-run ballgame. Hendricks pitched 5.2 innings allowing four runs on six hits. 52 of his 83 pitches were thrown for strikes. 

Anthony Rizzo blasted a 385-foot home run in the third, good for his 11th of 2019. 

Chicago's relief pitching took care of business after Hendricks' night was done. The combination of Brandon Kintzler, Xavier Cedeno, and Steve Cishek held the Nats to just three hits down the stretch. 

Injuries: 

RP Justin Miller: shoulder, expected to be out until at least May 31

SP Anibal Sanchez: hamstring, expected to be out until at least May 27

OF Andrew Stevenson: back, expected to be out until at least May 24

RP Tony Sipp: oblique, expected to be out until at least May 20

1B Matt Adams: shoulder, expected to be out until at least May 22

1B Ryan Zimmerman: foot, expected to be out until at least May 23

RP Koda Glover: elbow, expected to be out until at least May 25

RP Trevor Rosenthal: viral infection, Expected to be out until at least May 21

RP Austen Williams: shoulder, expected to be out until at least Jun 13

Coming Up:

Monday, 5/20: Nationals @ Mets, 7:10 p.m. ET, Citi Field 

Tuesday, 5/21: Nationals @ Mets, 7:10 p.m. ET, Citi Field 

Wednesday, 5/22: Nationals @ Mets, 7:10 p.m. ET, Citi Field 

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