SAN DIEGO — Three weeks ago, as the Washington Nationals navigated their way through their worst road trip of the season, pitching coach Steve McCatty and John Lannan had a long talk.
“Know what you are,” the coach told his left-hander who’d taken a loss or a no-decision in each of his previous six starts. “You’ve got to learn what you are and you have to go to your strength. He is a fastball, sinker, guy.”
The talk resonated. Lannan threw nearly 80 sinkers in his next bullpen session. He focused on the pitch. He had confidence in it. He threw it with authority and with location. In the 23 1/3 innings he’s pitched since that chat, Lannan has allowed just two earned runs.
The second of those earned runs came Saturday night on a home run to Anthony Rizzo in the second inning, but it was all Lannan would allow in a 2-1 victory that continued his successful string of starts and ensured the Nationals a shot at their first winning multi-city road trip in over three years.
“I’m just rolling with it,” Lannan, who tossed 6 1/3 innings, said. “The sinker is there and the confidence is there. I’m just building off it each start.”
It was the 10th time in their past 12 games that the Nationals starters have allowed two earned runs or less. In eight of those games, they allowed one earned run or less, compiling a 2.46 ERA in that stretch. But with an offense that continues to be among the league’s worst, they’ve won only seven of those games.
Looking for something to change that, manager Jim Riggleman revamped the lineup, placing $126 million man Jayson Werth in the leadoff spot and batting Lannan in the eighth spot.
“That was a great idea,” said shortstop Ian Desmond who hit behind Werth. “We’ve been looking for a leadoff hitter. If you take the contract away and just think about him as a baseball player, he actually fits pretty well there.”
“You’ve got to hit to win,” Werth said. “Hitting is not a bonus.”
It didn’t produce the immediate offensive awakening that it was intended for. In fact, Werth was hitless in four at-bats and was the Nationals’ latest victim to languish in the leadoff spot, while Brian Bixler, hitting ninth, was on base three times but never came home.
But the Nationals were able to string together three hits in the first inning off Clayton Richard, leading to their only runs of the game. Ian Desmond scored on a double by Danny Espinosa and Espinosa later came around on a single by Wilson Ramos.
The Padres also made some phenomenal defensive plays, stealing at least four surefire hits from the Nationals.
“They really took a lot of hits from us,” Riggleman said. “They’re diving all over the place and they took some away from us so that our pitchers have no margin for error.”
Turns out they didn’t need it. As Lannan approaches the one-year anniversary of his career low point, a demotion to Double-A in the 2010 season, he’ll reach it in one of the most successful stretches of his career. Not since the end of the 2009 season, a year Lannan finished with three straight seven-inning outings where he allowed three earned runs or less, has Lannan shown such consistency.
“After what he went through last year it’s really nice to see him putting his outings together this year like he did [in 2009],” Riggleman said. “It’s very much like the second half of ‘09.”