- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 29, 2009

ST. LOUIS | If John Lannan was worried at all about his recent stretch of poor outings — or that he would have to try to snap out of it against a future Hall of Famer and the majors’ hottest team — he certainly didn’t show it.

Lannan has always stared down the slightest hint of adversity without batting an eyelash. He has done this for more than two years now, and it’s that quality that has earned the 24-year-old status as ace of the Washington Nationals’ pitching staff.

So it wasn’t surprising at all that Lannan stared down John Smoltz and the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday night and churned out one of his finest pitching performances of the season. No one, though, not Lannan and certainly not Jason Bergmann, could stop the most-feared player in the game: Albert Pujols.

The St. Louis slugger greeted Bergmann in the ninth with a towering, solo homer to left, the deciding blow in the Cardinals’ 3-2 win at raucous Busch Stadium.

Bergmann inherited a tie ballgame in the ninth, after Lannan had pitched brilliantly for eight innings. But right out of the bullpen, he had to face Pujols, who had been stymied all night. Bergmann’s 1-1 pitch, though, wound up deep into the left-field bleachers. Pujols cruised around the bases, the crowd went nuts and Bergmann and his teammates could only trudge off the field in defeat.

The late blow capped what had been a fine duel between Lannan and Smoltz.

The two had done this before, meeting twice last season while the latter was still pitching for Atlanta. Smoltz won the first matchup; Lannan took the second, shutting the Braves out on a night his counterpart recorded his 3,000th strikeout.

It was clear from the start Friday night that both pitchers were in top form.

Making his second appearance in a Cardinals uniform and first at Busch Stadium since he was unceremoniously dumped by the Boston Red Sox, Smoltz was treated to a hero’s welcome. The crowd of 40,033 serenaded the 42-year-old with a standing ovation when he strolled in from the bullpen and again when he came up to bat for the first time in the third.

Smoltz delivered with a big-time performance befitting the occasion. His only real mistakes came in the third, when Alberto Gonzalez and Willie Harris each singled, and newly added Pete Orr drove in Gonzalez with a sacrifice fly.

Otherwise, the sage veteran hurler was in control, scattering four hits while striking out six in six strong innings.

Lannan, though, was better — and, most importantly, more efficient. Coming on the heels of those three straight shaky outings, the Nationals had to be at least a little anxious about their ace lefty Friday night. But Lannan eased any fears when he retired the side in the first without breaking a sweat.

His lone mistake came in the second, when he loaded the bases with no outs. But even then, Lannan showed grit in getting out of the jam with only minimal damage sustained. He traded a run for a double-play grounder, then snared a comebacker to end the inning.

He was seriously tested only once more all night, in the sixth when a leadoff single followed by an ill-advised, off-line throw by Ryan Zimmerman put runners on first and second with no outs and two of baseball’s most-feared hitters on deck: Pujols and Matt Holliday.

Lannan, though, has never been one to back down. This is the guy, after all, who in his third career start two years ago stared down Barry Bonds as the latter sought his 756th career homer and struck the game’s greatest slugger out with the poise of a veteran All-Star.

So it was that Lannan calmly got Pujols to fly out to right and then got Holliday to ground into a 5-3 double play, keeping the score knotted at 1-1 and paving the way for his teammates to break through with the go-ahead run on back-to-back doubles by Elijah Dukes and Josh Bard in the seventh.

If only Lannan had been able to hold that lead. Instead, he allowed the Cardinals to come right back and tie the score in the eighth on a laser of a pinch-hit home run by Khalil Greene.

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