- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 12, 2007

PHOENIX — There is perhaps no pitch in the major leagues right now more difficult to hit than the 88 mph sinker that comes careening out of Brandon Webb’s right hand.

It looks tantalizing enough, a two-seam fastball that hangs over the plate for a split-second. Until it darts down and away on left-handed hitters, down and in on right-handers, making nearly every one of them look foolish.

“It’s there, and then it’s gone,” Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “It is deceiving. It looks like a good pitch, and then you ground out to the shortstop.”

Something the Nationals did far more than they would have liked last night. Webb, the Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander and last season’s National League Cy Young Award winner, threw a five-hit shutout, outdueling rookie left-hander John Lannan in a 1-0 victory by the Diamondbacks last night.

Webb (12-8) has not allowed a run in his last 33 innings on the mound. That’s four straight starts without surrendering a single clutch hit, a broken-bat single with the bases loaded, a sacrifice fly with a man on third, a cheap home run just inside the foul pole.

The Nationals were helpless, unable to do anything with Webb’s devastating pitch, which drops like a 1,000-pound anvil just before it reaches the plate and causes hitters to swing and miss. Or, if they’re lucky, pound it right into the ground.

“I mean, you really have to be locked in, focused in, to make sure it’s up [in the strike zone], because that’s about the only chance you’ve got,” said right fielder Austin Kearns, who grew up with Webb in Kentucky and has been following him for years. “If it’s down … you saw what happened tonight.”

The Nationals, who have dropped four of their first six games on this West Coast trip, couldn’t get too down on themselves for last night’s five-hit showing. They’re only the latest team to look silly trying to figure out Webb, who hasn’t given up a run since July 20 at Wrigley Field.

They also couldn’t feel too bad about last night’s loss, because they got a standout performance from their own pitcher, Lannan, who nearly matched zeroes with Webb in throwing seven innings of one-run ball in only his fourth major league start.

“I’ve seen Webb do that over and over and over,” manager Manny Acta said. “But this kid, just removed a couple of months from A-ball, to match him up and go out there and give up a run in seven innings, just a remarkable performance by this kid.”

Given all he’s been through in two-plus weeks in the big leagues, Lannan had to be breathing a sigh of relief when he walked to the mound last night for a run-of-the-mill, average Saturday night ballgame. No Barry Bonds to deal with, no angry Phillies fans spewing venom for plunking Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, no imposing force like Ken Griffey Jr. in the opposing lineup.

Then again, Lannan would have been hard-pressed to find himself in a tougher pitching matchup, with none other than Webb dealing for the Diamondbacks.

These, however, are the kind of pitchers Lannan is going to have to be able to beat someday if he’s going to hold down one of the top spots in Washington’s rotation. So the Nationals had to at least be interested to see how the 22-year-old responded to the latest challenge thrown at him.

In that respect, Lannan (1-1) passed with flying colors. He allowed just four hits, walked two (one intentionally) and gave his team ample opportunity to win the game.

“He never got rattled out there,” Acta said. “He was in control the whole game.”

Four starts into his career, Lannan is feeling more and more comfortable. Bit by bit, he’s learning what it takes to succeed at this level. And even though he suffered his first loss last night, he emerged feeling good about the way he went toe-to-toe with Webb.

“It was another experience, just to be able to go out there and pitch against one of the best pitchers in the league the last couple of years,” he said. “It was a great experience.”

Lannan’s lone mistake came in the fourth inning to fellow rookie Justin Upton. With a man on second and two outs, the young lefty fell behind the 19-year-old outfielder and left a 3-1 fastball over the heart of the plate. Upton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft from Chesapeake, Va., drilled the ball to right-center, took off and didn’t stop until he was standing at third base with his third triple in nine major league games.

Little did the Nationals realize that RBI gap-shot by Upton would account for the night’s only run. With Webb on the mound, perhaps they should have had a hunch.

“We were just a mistake away from tying the game or winning the ball game,” Acta said. “But he never made it.”

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