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Behind John Lannan, Nationals hand Pirates 4-2 defeat

- The Washington Times - Monday, May 16, 2011

The pitcher's mound can be a lonely place. John Lannan was stuck on the 18-foot wide island of packed clay Monday night without his best stuff.

Lannan,  the Washington Nationals' left-hander, couldn't find a rhythm. Pitch after pitch floated up in the strike zone. And the Pittsburgh Pirates, with a lineup the most ardent baseball fan would have difficulty naming,smacked those pitches around Nationals Park.

Not  so long ago, the 27-year-old Lannan would've pushed through the struggle without adjustments. Instead, he took a deep breath. That kept the Nationals in the game long enough to pull out a 4-2 victory.

"I  needed to take a step back and breathe and locate my pitches down and away," Lannan said. "That's where I'm most effective. That's where I get my ground balls. That's what I did."

The calmer approach comes after Lannan observed veteran teammates Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis making changes as the game progresses.

Trying to throw his fastball by hitters is a thing of the past, if Lannan is to be effective. Pitching to contact is the goal, keeping the ball down and letting his defense do the rest. That's what Lannan did Monday, at least after he settled down.

"I'm not trying to blow guys away," said Lannan, who allowed seven hits and two runs over 6.1 innings.

Added manager Jim Riggleman: "He struggled. He wasn't throwing first-pitch strikes. ... Sometimes that's the way it's going to be."

After Lannan surrendered four hits and two walks in the first two innings, he took the deep breath. The defense behind him made things easier, too.

Chief among those plays was Roger Bernadina, who threw out Brandon Wood at third base from center field in the fourth. Wood tried to advance from first to third on a single, but the ball exploded out of Bernadina's hand and Jerry Hairston Jr. applied a sweeping tag.

"It saved the game for us," Lannan said. "That woke me up. I said, 'I've got to get this done.' "

The defense wasn't done, as Paul Maholm missed a bunt on a squeeze and Chris Snyder was caught in a rundown. Right fielder Jayson Werth added a sliding catch of a line drive from Matt Diaz that saved another run in the fifth.

Offense came from an unexpected place. Danny Espinosa, who took extra batting practice several hours before the game, broke a 2-2 deadlock with a two-run home run to right field.

The long ball came on the first pitch Espinosa saw from reliever Jose Ascanio. Espinosa has been mired in a month-long slump, with only six hits in his past 47 at-bats. That's good for a .128 average and pushed his season average to .196, a shade above his playing weight.

Espinosa's thought after the home run?

"It was a bad idea to bring in the righty," said Espinosa, a switch-hitter who hit from the left side. "That puts fuel in my tank."

Afterward,  Lannan joked that in every 10-start span, a pitcher will have six good outings, two mediocre ones and two bad ones. He felt Monday sat in the middle. Maybe more than anything, it showed he's growing as a pitcher.

"I'm going through some stuff that I'm working on," Lannan said. "I'm thankful I'm able to go out there and make pitches when I need to. ... Every day you've got to battle."


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