- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 23, 2011

LOS ANGELES — Andre Eithier stared up into the right-field bleachers in disbelief before leaning on his knees and exhaling. Livan Hernandez, in the Nationals dugout, put his hands on his head and uttered the words “Oh my God,” while the rest of the Nationals bench erupted into hysterics.

On the field, Nationals left-hander John Lannan was trotting around the bases after one of the season’s most improbable sights: a home run.

It’s not every day you see a pitcher hit a home run. In fact, the last National to do it was Hernandez himself last September in Atlanta. But it’s not every month you see this pitcher get a hit — let alone a two-run homer — to give himself and his team a lead that would stand in a 7-2 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers Friday night.

“I was shocked,” Lannan said, a mischievous smile on his face. “I think everybody was shocked.”

By the time Lannan made it back to the dugout, his teammates’ plan to give him the cold shoulder for his feat lasted all of five seconds. As soon as he placed his helmet back in the bat rack, they were all over him, offering wide smiles and back slaps for the incredibly rare display of power. Jerry Hairston Jr. added the third grand slam of his career, and second home run in two games since returning from the disabled list, for insurance in the ninth.

Lannan will be the first to admit that hitting has never been his strong suit. His mechanics were once laughable. Former Nationals pitching coach Randy St. Clair used to tell him he swung the bat like it was a wet newspaper. Lannan had never even hit a home run in batting practice until this season, a milestone that earned him the nickname “Longball Lannan” from his teammates.

But, in his last two starts, he’s been nearly unstoppable. Fellow starter Jason Marquis was even joking in the dugout during Lannan’s at-bat that he was the team’s hottest hitter after he went 2-for-3 in his last start, breaking an 0-for-32 skid the begin the season.

Lannan drove in two pivotal runs in a 5-2 win over the Atlanta Braves last weekend and Friday night he was 2-for-3 yet again with two more integral RBI. The left-hander’s first career homer came on a 1-2 pitch. Ian Desmond had reached base before him on a single to center field and Lannan took himself and his .092 career batting average to the plate just “trying to put the bat on the ball.”

When Hiroki Kuroda’s 85-mph slider over the heart of the plate. Lannan flicked his bat at it and began the first home run trot of his entire major league career.

It sent the bullpen, which got a front row view to the end of the ball’s flight, into a tizzy, giving them a topic of conversation for “five straight innings down there,” Sean Burnett said. They even thought about ringing up the dugout and asking for a curtain call.

The way Lannan has been pitching for much of this season, it’d be difficult for anything to overshadow his effectiveness — especially considering it was just more than a year ago the Nationals sent their homegrown talent back to Double-A to regain his form.

His hitting the past two games has.

“(Pitching coach Steve) McCatty’s over there fainting,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson joked about the reaction in the dugout. “Livo’s sitting there saying now we’ve got three good hitters, him, Lannan and Marquis. … We were all having fun out there. That’s our version of a laugher. Play a one-run game until the ninth inning and then score. That’s a laugher for us.”

So as a sidenote to his offensive heroics, Lannan held the Dodgers to two runs — and only one earned — over 6⅓ innings of work. He struck out six and walked four, only truly faltering in the fourth and that was aided by two errors on Desmond at shortstop.

Since May 27, when Lannan seemingly rediscovered his sinker after his first 10 starts of the season went into the record books with mixed results, the Nationals have an 8-3 record when he pitches and he has a 2.28 ERA. Take out the injury-shortened start from two weeks ago when he was hit in the face with a line drive against the Rockies, and that number drops to 1.97.

“It’s just trust,” Lannan said. “After that game against Colorado, I tried to go back out there and get the trust back. Today was a little difficult, but I was able to get through it. It’s the same thing all the time: You’ve just got to go out there, trust your stuff, know what works for you and what kind of pitcher you are. That’s what I’ve been trying to do.”

He’s also, apparently, a slugger. As they climbed back to within a game of .500, both on the season and on the current road trip, that was just fine with the Nationals.

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