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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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Fantasy Baseball Outlook: Week 8

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Fantasy Baseball Outlook: Week 8

 

It's a fun time of the year in fantasy baseball. Now that we're seven-to-eight weeks into the season, teams are starting to realize they may need the help of their top prospects in order to compete this year, which means lots of young talent getting the call. Plus, many players who began the season injured are getting healthy. Between the prospects and players returning from the Disabled List, fantasy owners should have plenty of options to choose from when it comes to setting their lineups this week.

As always, we're here to help you sort through those painful roster decisions, and we're going to keep it simple to avoid paralysis by analysis. As a reminder, It's your team, and your decisions you ultimately have to deal with, so don't treat this advice as the gospel. That said, it doesn't hurt to gain as much information as you can when making your decisions. Good luck!

NOTE: Don’t expect to see guys like Bryce Harper or Trea Turner mentioned too often. They are clear must-starts every week. Don’t overthink it.

Week 8 (5/21-5/27)

One Nationals pitcher to start: Gio Gonzalez

This is the second week in a row where every Nationals pitcher is only scheduled to pitch once. Last week, we recommended Max Scherzer because duh, and while we still think you should start him, it's also worth using Gonzalez. Gio has had a lot of success this season, sporting a 2.36 ERA in the middle of May, plus the Padres are notoriously poor against lefties (8th-worst batting average and OPS vs LHP in the majors).

Gonzalez isn't a must-start stud, mostly due to his high walk rate and resulting WHIP, but he's good enough to take advantage of the right matchups, and this qualifies.

One Nationals position player to start: Anthony Rendon, 3B

Just in case you're thinking about getting cute and sitting one of your studs, let this be a reminder that Rendon is great at what he does. In the past, we've recommended sitting him when working his way back from injury, but he's gotten enough reps at this point to get back into the swing of things.

It looks like he's struggled recently (one hit in the last seven days), but don't forget the Nats missed five straight days thanks to weather/planned off days. Plus, the Nats are set up to faces lefties in half their games this week, and Rendon has hit better against southpaws all season long.

One Nationals pitcher to sit: Tanner Roark

The Marlins have scored literally the fewest runs in baseball against right-handed pitching this season, and Roark hasn't been bad in 2018, despite the poor W-L record. Still, you're not sitting Scherzer or Strasburg, and we already recommended Gonzalez.

Roark has struggled against the Marlins in past years, as his 5.14 ERA vs the Marlins since 2015 is his 5th-worst number against any opponent, and while this year's Miami lineup looks far worse than in past seasons, and since Roark isn't the type of pitcher who gets enough strikeouts to raise his on a start-by-start basis, it's good enough of a reason for us to sit him this week. 

One Nationals player to sit: Juan Soto, OF

It's always fun when one of a team's top prospects gets called up, and that excitement doubles when the player is a teenager. It's always easy to see the high upside and imagine him taking the league by storm right from the get-go. That said, while it's worth a speculative pickup, we'd strongly recommend leaving Soto on the bench until we see A) how he hits against Major League pitching and B) what sort of playing time he'll get.


That's especially true this week, as his new manager Dave Martinez is already talking about sitting Soto against lefties, and wouldn't you know it, the Nats are scheduled to face southpaws in at least three games this week. It's possible Soto will be worth starting in the near-future, but for now, just be happy to add him to your rosters, not your starting lineups.

Any 2-start pitchers for the Nationals this week?

No. Not all starters have been scheduled yet, but the five-straight days off the Nats had last week threw a wrench into the works for their rotation, and as of now, no one is projected to make two starts.

Any 2-start pitchers worth streaming around MLB this week?

It's a really weak week for two-start streaming options. Beyond the seven or so obvious starts, who are almost certainly owned in your leagues already, there's not a lot to choose from. We'll go with the calculated risk Jake Faria of the Rays. Faria gets two starts at Tropicana Field this week, and he's been much better pitching at home during the course of his career. He'll be facing two scary opponents on paper, but the Orioles have struggled at the plate all season long (with the exception of a recent hot streak, hence the risk), and Faria has already pitched well against the Red Sox this year, allowing just one run over the course of two starts.

This isn't our most confident recommendation, but there are far worse options you could turn to in a brutal week.

One player you might not realize you should pick up: Andrew Heaney, SP (Angels) 

Heaney continued his recent stretch of strong play, as while he allowed four runs and walked on Saturday, none of the runs were earned, and he struck out seven. Heaney is a former top prospect, having once been considered the best left-handed pitching prospect in baseball, and he has a superb 10.5 K/9 this season, to go along with a quality 57 percent groundball rate. That means he's not allowing a lot of contact, and the contact he is allowing isn't doing much damage.

Given his prospect pedigree and strong peripherals to start the year, Heaney is well worth an add if you find him available on the waiver wire. He's not just a speculative pickup, but somebody worth inserting into your starting lineup right away. Hopefully, because he plays on the west coast and isn't a household name, he's still available in some of your leagues.

One player you might not realize you should drop: Robinson Cano, 2B (Mariners) 

If somehow Cano is eligible in a DL spot in your league, and you don't have the spot filled with another star, then you can disregard this one. But, if he's listed in your league as suspended and not injured, then he likely won't be worth holding onto during his time away. 80 games is a lot, obviously, and a guy who's going to miss half the games in a season needs to be sensational in the other half to make up for it. Cano's past his prime, and while when healthy he's obviously still worth starting, he's not the type of guy you tie up a bench spot with, unless you're in the deepest of leagues.

Plus, if you're savvy, you can always remember to pick up Cano again a week or two before his suspension is up, since no one else in your league is likely to snag him in the meantime. For now, though, feel free to use the roster spot on somebody who will contribute over the next three months.

MORE NATS NEWS:

- Too Soon For Soto?: Nats make a bold call-up
- Rankings Update: Where did the Nats fall?
- Cause For Concern?: How worried should Nats fans be?

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Mike Rizzo makes bold move to call up Juan Soto

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Mike Rizzo makes bold move to call up Juan Soto

This is not a tweet I expected to read in May of 2018.

On the heels of their latest injury, the team is adding uber-prospect Juan Soto to the roster. It's unclear how much playing time he'll receive early on, but it's hard to imagine the team would be willing to start his service time clock and mess with his development track simply to sit him on the bench. He'll likely play, and make an impact on the team for as long as he's in D.C.

Let's not bury the lede, though. As you probably noticed in the tweet, Juan Soto is 19-years old. He was born in October of 1998, making him the youngest player in the majors, and bringing us one step closer to the first big-leaguer born in the 2000s. 

As incredible as it is for Soto to make the majors as a teenager (Bryce Harper and Time Raines are the only other teenagers to play in the majors in franchise history, which is pretty good company), what might be even more stunning is how quickly this came together for him. 

This will already be Soto's fourth different level of professional baseball this season alone, having spent time with the low-A, high-A, and AA clubs so far. In his entire life, Soto has just 35 plate appearances above class-A, which is almost unheard of for a player getting promoted to the big league roster.

He's hit everywhere he's been, with his career OPS in the minors a whopping 1.043 (his lowest wRC+ at any level is 132), though it remains to be seen if his prodigious bat is ready for Major League pitching. Still, simply being in the majors at such a young age is a great sign for his future, especially considering he's almost a year younger than anyone else playing in the big leagues right now.

Not that anybody should put Hall of Fame expectations on a kid who hasn't even faced a pitch in the majors yet, but Soto's meteoric rise gives him a better chance than most at greatness. Just last month, when discussing the dynamic Braves duo of Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna, Hall of Fame-expert Jay Jaffe did some research on young stars making the big leagues, and the numbers are promising.

According to Baseball Reference (and we're just going to take their word for it), there have been 19,261 players in the history of Major League Baseball, and 226 of them have been elected to the Hall of Fame. That's a minuscule 1.1%.

But, of every player to ever record 100 plate appearances as a 19-year old (a number Soto should easily hit if he stays up all season), the number of players who eventually made the Hall of Fame jumps to 24%. If Soto is only up for a cup of coffee this year, and next year is when he's here to stay, you can move up the list to players who recorded 100 PA in their age-20 seasons, and the number is still 19%.

Plus, that percentage is likely to increase in the coming decades, as there are 18 active players to reach the benchmark, including future locks Adrian Beltre, Miguel Cabrera, and Mike Trout, and guys who are young but on the right track (Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Carlos Correa, and Giancarlo Stanton). Acuna, Albies, and Rafael Devers could find their way on the list one day as well. Considering only three of those names need to be enshrined in Cooperstown one day, it's safe to say that percentage is only growing.

That's a lot of stats that look nice for Soto and the Nationals, but obviously, we're at least a decade away from having a legitimate conversation about his Hall of Fame chances. Still, it highlights what we've known about him for quite some time. Juan Soto is a special, generational talent, and his rise to the big leagues as a teenager is worth writing home about.

What he's done so far is historic, and even if the move seems premature, it's plenty cause for excitement about the future of baseball in D.C.

MORE NATS NEWS:

- Rankings Update: Where does your team fall?
- Cause For Concern?: How worried should Nats fans be?
- Very Persuasive: How Rizzo convinced Reynolds to come to D.C.