On a dreary Saturday afternoon at Nationals Park that seemed befitting of the mood that descended around them, the Washington Nationals needed a savior. They needed a spark. A series that had carried with it perhaps more weight than any in their team's history had begun in the worst way possible for the Nationals and their designs on maintaining first place atop the National League East.
They blew the largest lead in franchise history on Friday night. They lost Bryce Harper, at least momentarily, to an ankle injury early in the first game of a doubleheader on Saturday — a game they'd end up losing 4-0. Their lead in the division was shrinking rapidly and their bullpen was, to use manager Davey Johnson's phrase, "in tatters."
They turned to an old savior. A former Opening Day starter. A pitcher who'd been around through more bad days than almost anyone else on the 25-man roster, and right when the good times were set to roll was optioned out.
They turned to John Lannan. And in his first major league start since Sept. 27, 2011, Lannan pitched seven strong innings, "a masterpiece," his manager called it, to lead the Nationals to a 5-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves that they all knew they needed.
"I think most of the guys in this locker room felt like it was a must-win tonight," said closer Tyler Clippard, who rebounded from a string of sub-par outings to notch his 16th save in the nightcap and help the Nationals move back to 2 ½ games ahead of Atlanta in the standings.
"We needed to get one. If they took three from us right away, it would have been a pretty big blow. ... We're well aware of [that]. It doesn't need to be said. It's obvious how important these games are."
It was fitting, then, that it happened to be Lannan they turned to when they needed a win most.
The Nationals' personnel could change before the team shuts down ace Stephen Strasburg in September. But for now, Lannan is the player most likely to fill that spot in the Nationals' rotation — the pitcher most likely thrust into pivotal games in the heat of a pennant race's stretch drive.
If more performances like Saturday night's — when Lannan allowed two earned runs in a rocky first but settled in to throw 47 of his final 63 pitches for strikes and got 11 of his final 18 outs on the ground — are what the Nats get, that'll be just fine with them.
"There's no question," Johnson said, asked if he'd be comfortable with Lannan in September. "The toughest thing I had to do this year was tell him we were going to option him out. But, you know, when I talked to him three, four days ago and said he was coming up, I said, 'I'm glad to be able to get you back here, at least for one game.' He said, 'I can't wait to help the ballclub.' That was his approach. I said, 'I'm sure you will.' Boy what a great story."
Lannan called the start, in which he was the 26th man added to the roster for the day of the doubleheader as part of the new collective bargaining agreement, "a win-win for me."
While he's proven over the course of several years that he is no minor leaguer, he's come to terms with the decision the Nationals made to make him one on the eve of the season, and he spoke of his desire to "help this team out down the stretch." He keeps in touch with his teammates often and knows he's a part of what's going on this season even if he's not around daily.
"I've been through a lot with these guys," he said. "And I do feel a part of it.
"But the game goes on. If I'm here or not, these guys are still going to bust their butts. I know they're thinking about me and I'm thinking about them. And hopefully we can play together in September."
It was clear, to a man, how much it meant to the rest of his teammates to see him not only back in the big leagues but performing the way he did. The defense behind him was crisp, the reception in the clubhouse carried the air of a family reunion.
"I honestly couldn't stop smiling when I saw him on the mound," said shortstop Ian Desmond, who was pulled in the eighth inning of the nightcap when his sore left oblique acted up. "I knew he was hungry for it."
Desmond is iffy for Sunday's game, though Harper is expected to be a go. Harper returned in the second game to notch a key pinch hit, steal a base and score an insurance run. But even his sore oblique couldn't dampen Desmond's enthusiasm for Lannan's performance.
As Lannan walked off the mound following the seventh inning, his offense having picked him up for the two early runs and set to tack on the third that would make a winner out of him, Johnson met him at the dugout steps and shook his hand. He put his arms on the left-hander's shoulders and looked him in the eye. "Love ya, man," Johnson told him with a smile.
"He's done such great things for our team up here," Clippard said. "It just is a testament to how good our staff is. He deserves to be here, but he's doing some things in Triple A, working out some things he needs to work out. And when he gets here, he's going to contribute in a big way for us down the stretch. I think he understands that. We all understand that. It was good to have him here, get his feet wet here and hopefully we see him soon."
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