NEW YORK — Wednesday evening, John Lannan will take the mound at Citi Field and officially end his season in exile from the major leagues.
He had two reprieves, two starts in doubleheaders that he won at pivotal times for his big-league team. But this will be the return to the rotation. His return to normalcy for a team he lived through the bad days with for so long.
It will be his introduction to the pennant race and to pitching every five days in games that matter.
"I try not to put any added pressure on the situation," Lannan said this week. "I would think it'd tend to distract you. You've just got to go out there like any other game and pitch. These ballgames are important. It's kind of cool to be around these guys in a pennant race, so I'm not thinking of it as pressure. I'm just thinking of it as a great opportunity."
It was supposed to be Stephen Strasburg's start — the swan song of the 2012 season for the Washington Nationals' prized right-hander. But the Nationals ended Strasburg's season Saturday, and Lannan, promoted from Triple-A Syracuse on Sept. 1, was told to throw a bullpen session Sunday to prepare for his first start in 12 days.
"I'm just going to go at it like I did the doubleheader games," Lannan said. "Just any opportunity I get to help the team. I know it sounds cliche, but just to do my part.
"That's all I wanted to do this whole year. That's why I was so upset [when I got sent down]. Because I busted my [butt] for the last three years trying to help this team win and that's all I want to do now. I'm just going to do my best."
It's "kind of crazy," he said, that his return to the Nationals' rotation will happen on the mound he was scheduled to make his first start of the season April 10.
That was before the Nationals decided to send him and his $5 million salary to the minor leagues on the eve of the season, choosing to insert Ross Detwiler into the rotation and keep Craig Stammen in the bullpen.
It was before the life he'd planned on living this season was thrown for a loop.
"[When the decision was made] I felt bad, personally, so I'm sure he didn't feel good about it," said Stammen, one of Lannan's closest friends on the team. "He had all his plans made to be here the whole time. Your life gets flipped upside down. You've kind of got to roll with the punches a little."
The season finished in a much more positive way. Lannan ended his minor league year with back-to-back shutouts, and his two call-ups for the Nationals went exceptionally well.
He changed his posture on the mound, reverting to a more relaxed position instead of the hunched-over form he'd used since a rough patch in 2010 that resulted in him being sent to Double-A.
That was a time when, "I would've tried anything," Lannan said. "If they told me to throw backward I would have done it because I just didn't have any feel for anything."
What he found this season was a struggle repeating his delivery with that positioning. His neck was becoming sore from trying to force it, and his comfort on the mound began to slip away.
Triple-A pitching coach Greg Booker talked it out with Lannan and advised the left-hander to go back to his natural form. The result was a stronger downward angle on the ball, a better control of his pitches and a 1.63 ERA in August.
But for the most part, while he was toiling away, he watched from afar while the teammates he had slogged through many a losing season with soared.
"You can't take it too personally," he said. "I'm very happy for these guys. There was a lot of tough times here. Growing pains. Just to see it come to fruition, the Lerner family and [general manager] Mike Rizzo's plan, just seeing it happen you can't be anything but happy and proud of the guys that they put in place."
It's perhaps fitting, then, that Lannan will be thrust back into the fire when it's as hot as it's ever been. Entering Tuesday night's game, the Nationals led the NL East by 6½ games, and they'll need Lannan's help in locking down the first playoff spot in franchise history.
"I think everybody trusts him," Stammen said. "Rather than bringing up somebody we don't know about that we've never had on the team before and being put in a situation like that, we trust John. He's been put in all these situations before. He's been asked to do a lot. This will be easy for him."
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