NEW YORK — Pitcher John Lannan entered Citi Field’s visitors clubhouse at 4:30 p.m., wearing a dress shirt and slacks. He went to his cubicle, washed down a couple of pills and began unbuttoning his shirt.
Looking at him from the other corner of the back row, with no one standing between them, was pitcher Stephen Strasburg. He was almost finished putting on his uniform and the surreal moment didn’t go unnoticed. They exchanged some light-hearted banter and chuckled.
The Washington Nationals played game No. 143 Wednesday night, a 2-0 victory against the New York Mets that basically was like any other game for all but two of Washington’s players — Strasburg, the phenom whose season was shut down last week, and Lannan, the one-time rotation stalwart now filling the gap.
Strasburg was missing the first of however many more starts he would have made this season, a decision you might have heard about. Lannan was starting his third game for the Nationals this season, but the first in which he wasn’t hopping a flight back to Syracuse afterward.
For those two, the season made a hairpin curve.
For their teammates, not so much.
“It all blends together for us,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “We have to come in each day and ask who’s pitching. We have to be here regardless.”
It figures that Strasburg’s unavailability wouldn’t cause a ripple. The Nats shrugged when slugger Michael Morse missed the first two months of the season. They yawned when closer Drew Storen missed the entire first half. They barely blinked when catcher Wilson Ramos tore up his knee after 25 games and outfielder Jayson Werth missed nearly one-third of the season.
Strasburg is out, for whatever the reason, and the band plays on.
“He is who he is,” pitcher Edwin Jackson said. “Everybody knows what he can do and his capabilities, but we don’t have time to skip a beat. It’s a tough situation for him to be in, but he would expect the same from us.”
It would be unfair to expect the same from Lannan. But everyone will compare and contrast anyway. And in his first post-Strasburg outing, Lannan’s results were a pretty good imitation. He went 5⅔ innings, yielding no runs on five hits, aided by some golden glove work behind him.
Lannan won’t pitch a shutout every time out, but he doesn’t need to be lights out to replicate Strasburg’s production of late. In Strasburg’s final 10 starts, he averaged 5⅓ innings and yielded five hits with a 4.14 ERA. That’s a sharp drop-off from his first 18 starts, when the numbers were virtually the same except for the ERA, 2.66.
“I have to go out there and do what I do,” Lannan said after improving to 3-0. “I can’t compare myself to him because what he’s done is unbelievable.”
The entire season has been unbelievable, so why not add another crazy plot twist? You can’t do much better than bringing in Lannan — a two-time Opening Day starter for the Nationals and the No. 2 winningest pitcher in their uniform — to save the day after he languished in the minors virtually all season.
Shortstop Ian Desmond called it a “pretty inspiring story,” which actually is typical on this ballclub. Lannan’s tale would be touching on its own, regardless of who he was replacing in the rotation. He’s the franchise’s longsuffering pitcher who, finally, late in the season, gets to discover and enjoy what winning tastes like.
“It’s definitely strange for a lot of guys,” Lannan said of the situation. “It hasn’t happened before.”
For all we know, it will never happen again. But it probably will be brought up 10 years from now. We know it will remain a storyline throughout the season, however long it lasts. Especially on the handful of days when Lannan starts.
He should be fine, a competitive player doing what he does. Strasburg, however, must deal with the strange feeling of being healthy yet not pitching. Jordan Zimmermann did it last year, but the Nats weren’t the best team in baseball and headed toward the playoffs last year.
“All that matters to us is that Strasburg knows we don’t look at him any differently,” LaRoche said. “This is not his decision; he is not letting any of us down. We’re not going to forget the last five months. He got us as far as he possibly could, and now it’s time to pass the baton to somebody else.”