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Lannan rises to the occasion

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Lannan rises to the occasion

For more than four seasons, he would take the mound every fifth day for the Nationals, the most reliable member of a typically unreliable starting rotation. He pitched well most nights, didn't pitch well every once in a while, and compiled stats that suggested he was worthy of a spot at the back end of a big-league rotation.

But through it all, through 128 starts with the Nationals from 2007-11, John Lannan never once pitched in a truly significant baseball game.

"I mean, I've never been on a first-place team," he said. "And I've never been in a game where it really meant something."

So when the opportunity finally presented itself Saturday night, Lannan decided he might as well make the most of it.

"That's all I wanted to do: Come in, and in any way I could help the team," he said.

Lannan did more than just help his team. With seven sparkling innings against the Braves, the left-hander carried his team to a much-needed, 5-2 victory that snapped a three-game losing streak, prevented Atlanta from sweeping a doubleheader and prevented the Nationals' ever-shrinking lead from dropping to 12-game and causing some actual panic on South Capitol Street.

No, instead of waking up Sunday morning and facing an all-or-nothing showdown for first place in the NL East, the Nationals will remain 2 12 games up on the Braves, eased by the knowledge they'll continue to hold the same top spot they've held in the division for two full months now.

"I think most of the guys in this locker room felt like it was a must-win tonight," closer Tyler Clippard said. "We needed to get one. If they took three from us right away, it would have been a pretty big blow."

It wasn't surprising that the Nationals righted themselves behind a dominant performance from a member of the majors' best rotation. It was, however, surprising that the pitcher who did it hadn't been a member of that rotation the previous 92 games ... and won't be a member of that rotation for Game No. 94.

Exiled to Syracuse on the final day of spring training despite his tenure in the organization and his 5 million salary, Lannan spent the last 3 12 months toiling away as a Class AAA pitcher, putting up less-than-spectacular numbers (6-9, 4.89 ERA) and not getting a chance to be a part of the first true pennant race in D.C. in three generations.

The Nationals, though, told Lannan all along they would need his services at some point, and the opportunity arose with this day-night doubleheader. Taking advantage of a new MLB rule that allows teams to add a 26th player only for twinbills, Lannan was recalled for one day and handed the ball for Saturday's nightcap.

"I never really thought about it. I just went down there and knew I needed to do my work," said Lannan, who did formally request a trade after his demotion. "The first couple starts were rough, but this day didn't really cross my mind until I kind of saw it line up and I realized: 'Hey, I might have a shot to start that game.'"

He watched Game 1 of the doubleheader from the clubhouse, as his teammates failed to score a run off Ben Sheets or two Braves relievers during a frustrating, 4-0 loss that came mere hours after they had blown a nine-run lead and suffered a soul-crushing, 11-10 loss late Friday night.

Now, Lannan was being given the ball for arguably the most important game of the Nationals' season to date. And the eight guys who took the field with him were confident in the 27-year-old's ability to rise to the occasion.

"I mean, I honestly couldn't stop smiling when I saw him on the mound," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "I knew he was hungry for it."

Perhaps too hungry, because all the emotion of the moment seemed to get the best of Lannan during a troublesome first inning in which the Braves scored two runs and had five batters reach base.

Once he overcame that hiccup, though, Lannan settled in and got down to business. He started throwing more strikes (47 of his last 63 pitches), started inducing more groundballs (11 of his last 18 outs) and started getting stronger and stronger as each inning passed.

And thanks to some well-executed at-bats in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings, the Nationals plated the three runs they needed to leave Lannan in line for the win.

"He definitely did a good job to keep us in the game, and we scored a couple runs for him," said Roger Bernadina, whose RBI single (his fifth hit of the day) drove in the go-ahead run.

As he summoned his bullpen to pitch the night's final two innings, manager Davey Johnson put his arms on Lannan's shoulders and told the lefty: "Love ya, man."

It was a strikingly different conversation than the last one the two had in that dugout, the one on April 3 in which Johnson informed the pitcher he was being optioned to the minors.

"It was the toughest thing I had to do this year, to tell him we were going to option him out," Johnson said. "But, you know, when I talked to him 3-4 days ago and said he was coming up, I said: 'I'm glad to be able to get you back here, at least for one game.' He said: 'I can't wait to help the ballclub.' That was his approach. I said: 'I'm sure you will.' Boy, what a great story."

A story whose conclusion remains unknown. Lannan will be back on a flight Sunday morning to Syracuse, a minor leaguer once again.

But he feels reasonable sure he'll return before this season is over, and Johnson all but said as much after Saturday's game, suggesting Lannan will be recalled in September to take the rotation spot that will open after Stephen Strasburg is shut down.

The way things are going, it seems a given Lannan will be asked to pitch even bigger games for the pennant-chasing Nationals than he did on Saturday.

But before that happens, he'll have to return to watching from afar, rooting for his teammates from hundreds of miles and one giant step down in competition, biding his time until the opportunity arises again.

"I've been through a lot with these guys, and I do feel part of it," he said. "But the game goes on. If I'm here or not, these guys are still going to bust their butts. 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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Washington Nationals Roundup: Stephen Strasburg saves Nationals from series sweep

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Washington Nationals Roundup: Stephen Strasburg saves Nationals from series sweep

With 11 strikeouts and only two hits in eight innings, Stephen Strasburg contained the Marlins to nothing as the Nationals won 5-0 in Miami. Here are the latest news and notes after Sunday’s victory.

Player notes:

Anthony Rendon remains day-to-day after being hit on his left elbow by a pitch Saturday. He left Saturday’s game and missed Sunday’s outing as well. Howie Kendrick, his replacement thus far, finished the series against Miami going 1-for-3 with a single RBI.

Stephen Strasburg posted double-digit strikeouts for the first time this season (11). Strasburg dropped his ERA by almost 1.5 runs, and is expected to start next against the Padres. That series begins Friday, April 26.

Ryan Zimmerman went 2-for-4 with two home runs. He tallied two RBIs as well.

Injuries:

3B Anthony Rendon: Elbow hit by pitch, day-to-day

RP Austen Williams: Shoulder, 10-day IL

RP Justin Miller: Back, 10-day IL

SS Trea Turner: Finger, 10-day IL

RP Koda Glover: Elbow, 10-day IL

Coming Up:

Monday, 4/22: Nationals @ Rockies, 8:40 p.m. ET, Coors Field

Tuesday, 4/23: Nationals @ Rockies, 8:40 p.m. ET, Coors Field

Wednesday, 4/24: Nationals @ Rockies, 3:10 p.m. ET, Coors Field

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3 things to watch when the .500 Nationals head to Colorado

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3 things to watch when the .500 Nationals head to Colorado

The Nationals face the Rockies at Coors Field for the first half of this work week. Here are three things to watch for:

  1. Can the Nationals stay above .500? Stephen Strasburg’s impressive start along with Ryan Zimmerman’s two homers and two RBI kept Washington from being swept by the lowly Marlins.

  2. Who will produce with Anthony Rendon out? While the Nats 3B was sidelined with an elbow injury after being hit by a pitch in Saturday’s outing against the Marlins, Howie Kendrick started in his place. Kendrick went 1-for-3 vs Miami with one RBI and one strikeout. In terms of replacing Rendon’s hitting prowess, Victor Robles has started a streak of his own. The youngster is hot on a seven game hit streak, including a bunt over the infield Sunday.

  3. Will the Nationals ever sure up their end game? Yesterday’s ninth inning was on the brink of disaster. Kyle Barraclough allowed back-to-back walks, then Sean Doolittle loaded the bases. Luckily for the Nats, crisis averted.

Download the MyTeams app for even more Nationals content, and check out the latest episode of the Racing Presidents podcast below.

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