PHILADELPHIA — The Washington Nationals wake up Wednesday morning with a four-game lead in the National League East. For a team that has led the division for 172 days this season and hasn’t resided anywhere but atop the division since May 22, that is the smallest their lead has been since Aug. 28.
Seems like a long time ago, right? It wasn’t. And believe it or not, three weeks before that the lead was even smaller. A three-game lead with 53 to play. Certainly a much more vulnerable position than they’re in now — with a four-game lead and eight to play.
There is still no reason to panic just yet.
But these are the games that define a season, the final ones they need to get where they’ve been trying to go all season.
So in need of one of a win in one of those games, the Nationals will turn to John Lannan Wednesday night in Philadelphia.
By now Lannan’s story is known.
And one part of that story is his first major league start of the season, a game that was perhaps the biggest must-win the Nationals faced at mid-season, and the 5-2 victory he led them to over the Braves when it seemed like things might actually be slipping away. Lannan played the white knight when the Nationals needed him most.
It has been a season of overcoming mental hurdles for Lannan, who had to digest the idea of returning to the minor leagues on the eve of the most anticipated season in Nationals history.
In order to come up big again Wednesday, Lannan will need to overcome another one: The Phillies.
Ever since his major league debut the Phillies have been a thorn in Lannan’s side and Citizens Bank Park has helped to serve as his personal house of horrors.
In his career, Lannan is 2-12 against the Phillies with a 5.79 ERA, and inside Citizens Bank Park he’s 1-5 in seven starts with a 7.06 ERA. He had a breakthrough in 2011 with a 7-5 victory over the Phillies in September, the win that gave Lannan his 10th of the season.
So as he takes the mound today, looking to shave the Nationals’ magic number down to four and bring the Phillies one step closer toward official elimination, he’ll likely be trying to remember that start, and not the six that came before it.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson lined Lannan up against the Phillies specifically, wanting his team to throw three left-handed pitchers to the lefty-heavy club. He’ll need him to be the guy he was when the Nationals called on him in July, and then again in August, as well as the one who took the first post-Strasburg shut down against the New York Mets and pitched exceptionally well.