The Ballad of John Lannan
Perhaps the toughest personnel decision the Nationals faced all year long came well before the national spotlight shined upon their impressive run towards October baseball. Way back on March 31, after the Nationals finished their final exhibition game against the Boston Red Sox, manager Davey Johnson announced to the local press corps that the team had made the decision to keep hard-throwing lefty Ross Detwiler as the fifth starter in the rotation. With a top four that featured Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, that meant that John Lannan, the club’s Opening Day starter in both 2009 and 2010, was the odd man out. The man who led the team in wins the year prior would open the season at Triple-A Syracuse.
“It was definitely tough for him going down to Syracuse after being the Opening Day starter here two years in a row,” said Nationals outfielder Corey Brown, who played with Lannan much of the season with the Chiefs.
Lannan did not respond well at first to his new assignment. He gave up five runs in just two innings of work in his first start. While things slowly got better from there, he was still plagued by inconsistencies. But he put his head down and pushed forward, grinding through the long bus rides and small, sometimes rundown ballparks that are a way of life in the minors. When the Nationals faced a dire situation – needing an extra starter in a crucial July series against Atlanta – they called upon Lannan’s services for the first time. He watched the team build a 9-0 lead, only to let it slip away in an 11-10 series opening loss. The next day, the Nationals were shut out in the opening game of the doubleheader, cutting their division lead to a precarious 1.5 games. With the direction of their season at a crossroads, they handed the ball to Lannan.
He allowed a pair of first-inning runs, but shut the potent Braves lineup down the rest of the way, as the Nationals chipped away with single runs in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings to retake control of the game and the direction of their season. His work done, Lannan was shipped back to Syracuse after the game.
Two weeks later, the Nationals faced the same situation, needing the services of a sixth starter for a doubleheader, this time against the Marlins. Again Lannan allowed a first-inning run, then cruised as the Washington offense scored seven times in the first four frames behind him. For Lannan, it was a second crucial spot-start, a second win and a third option, back to Syracuse, to wait until September and the expansion of the rosters. But the pitcher who had gone a pedestrian 6-10 with a 5.24 ERA looked like a whole new player on the mound. He pitched to a 3-1 record with a 1.63 ERA in August, finishing his minor league season with consecutive shutouts before rejoining the big league club for September.
“He battled, he continued to pitch,” recalled Brown. “He had a rough little patch, but he finished well and that’s definitely going to help him leading up to today’s start.”
John Lannan stepped up huge for us tonight. Fun to be back out there with my boy—
Ian Desmond (@IanDesmond20) July 22, 2012
Tonight, Lannan takes center stage in his hometown of New York. While the national media may not get to enjoy their anticipated frenzy over Stephen Strasburg’s final start of the season, they will instead get an even better story, one of a man who has done as much to earn his place on the mound tonight as anyone in a Nationals uniform.
“It’s great to be able to come back and pitch in my hometown, where I grew up watching baseball,” said the Long Beach, NY native. “Just staying in the city, just being back in the city, it’s a good vibe.”
Lannan could be bitter from his time spent back in the minors, but instead he seems calm and collected, happy to be back at the top of the game, pitching in the most important games of his professional career with a Nationals club that is competitive for the first time in its young history.
“It’s been great. I’ve battled with these guys the last four years,” Lannan says of his second chance. “They’re my teammates, they’re my friends.”
One of Lannan’s close friends and teammates, Ian Desmond, has been one of the most vocal in supporting him through a trying season. The two played together as they rose through the system as well as the last several years in the District.
“Any time you go through struggles, in life or in baseball, it makes you stronger,” said Desmond. “Once you go back to the Minor Leagues, you remember where you came from. When you get back up (to the majors), it brings that joy back to you, helps you overcome. It kind of puts everything in perspective. I know he’s already bounced back twice, and I hope he continues to come out, pitch to the best of his ability, and help us to the promised land.”