MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — If the story of John Lannan’s season were to be written over the course of one game, Tuesday night’s 3-2 walk-off loss to the Marlins might have been just the one to do it.
The 2011 season for Lannan was one filled with peaks and valleys sandwiched around a sustained period of dominance unlike any other in his career. That was Lannan Tuesday night. Dominant, then passable, then unexpectedly wild and leaving without enough offense to support him for a win. With a 79-80 record heading into Wednesday’s season finale, the Nationals are assured their sixth straight losing record.
In the six innings that Lannan pitched, he experienced almost every hurdle he had in the regular season, save, of course, for taking a line drive off his face like he did just before the All-Star break.
"I thought his effort was great," said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. "Just seemed like he was cruising along and for some reason he had a problem in the sixth."
That problem was a sudden lack of control as a driving rain shower cloaked Sun Life Stadium. He lost the strike zone with two outs, hit Gaby Sanchez with a pitch in the foot and suffered a game-tying passed ball over the head of Wilson Ramos in a walk to Logan Morrison.
"I don’t know what it was," Lannan said. "But I was missing huge."
And When Bryan Petersen’s two-out, first-pitch, bottom of the ninth homer sailed into the right field seats off Doug Slaten, it ended the way so many others have for the Nationals and Lannan as well. In a season in which Lannan posted a 3.70 ERA, the Nationals went 17-16 in games he started. They also averaged just 3.6 runs in those games.
"He threw the ball well," said Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty. "He could have a few more wins. But for the most part he threw the ball well. He’s made progress."
For a 14-start stretch between the end of May and the middle of August, Lannan wasn’t just progressing he was a nearly unstoppable force. He lost just two of those starts and the Nationals went 10-4 when he was on the mound. He averaged six innings and 1.78 runs allowed per start.
"He's been outstanding," Johnson said of Lannan’s year. "He's been a mainstay. He's pitched a lot of great ballgames. Unfortunately we didn't score him a lot of runs. He’'s been very stingy giving up runs."
For the better part of five innings Tuesday night, that was Lannnan. Pitching in a place he rarely excelled in, he’d allowed just two hits and walked two. He’d seen one run come home but the Nationals’ offense had picked him up a bit to tie the game on Michael Morse’s 31st home run of the season and then took the lead one inning later on an RBI-single by Ian Desmond. But Javier Vazquez would surrender no more in what could be the final start of his career, a complete-game performance.
And then Lannan became the guy who lasted less than five innings on four occasions this season, the one who couldn’t seem to get out of his own way when he was inches away from escaping any damage. Lannan could feel the weight of the Nationals potential winning season on his shoulders. One more strike to Gaby Sanchez and he would have been out of the sixth with a 2-1 lead. Instead the wild pitch followed to Morrison and allowing two runs on this night would be one too many.
Now 80-81 is the best the Nationals can possibly finish the season.
"I kept the team in the ballgame but, you know, you look at that, and I could have easily just kept the lead," Lannan said. "They’re busting their butts out there to get a lead, and when you blow it like that, it’s not a good. Going into next year, that’s something I really want to work on. When guys get the lead, hold it."
It’s a mental adjustment, McCatty said, that Lannan is more than capable of making. If he’s to keep his status as a stalwart in the Nationals rotation next year -- a "mainstay" as Johnson called him -- that continued improvement will be paramount.
"It's just the way you approach it," McCatty said. "It's just telling your mind to get focused. When I say, ‘You're not going to do that,’ it sounds easy but really you just say ‘Hey, I'm not going to let it happen.’"
Lannan will finish the year at 10-13, the first time in his career he’s ever recorded 10 wins in a season, and with a career-best 3.70 ERA. He couldn’t process and reflect on his entire season immediately Tuesday night, but he found himself finding it to be not good enough. A career-best year wasn’t close enough to perfection for him to see past the immediate sting of the team’s loss.
"Right now, this is fresh in my mind," Lannan said. "I didn’t want it to end like this."
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