- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2008

NEW YORK — At the end of 4 hours, 45 minutes and 14 innings of baseball, it was hard for the Washington Nationals to find much to smile about as this weary bunch packed its bags and prepared for a late-night flight from LaGuardia Airport to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

A 3-2 loss to the New York Mets at Shea Stadium had drained them of whatever shreds of energy they still had, leaving them a physically and mentally tired club that has dropped 12 of its last 13 and last night managed a total of six hits in 14 innings.

The final details of this latest loss — a blown lead in the eighth, setting the stage for the Mets to win it in the 14th when Joel Hanrahan (Washington’s sixth reliever of the night uncorked his second wild pitch of the inning, this one with the bases loaded) — weren’t pretty.

“I just tried to throw it too hard, had too much adrenaline going,” Hanrahan said. “It [stinks] because these guys battled their [butts] off all day, and one pitch blows the game for us.”

But the Nationals (4-12) shouldn’t have left Queens completely down on themselves, because there was one significantly positive development: John Lannan’s six innings of brilliance on the mound, which may have been an afterthought at night’s end but shouldn’t be forgotten by anyone.

Pitching just a short drive up the Van Wyck Expressway from his home in Long Beach, N.Y., Lannan dazzled a throng of friends and family members with an 11-strikeout performance that few could have seen coming.

Hardly known as a power pitcher, the 23-year-old blew away the Mets’ lineup with surprising ease, allowing one run on three hits without walking a batter in his 102-pitch outing.

Not bad for a quiet Long Island kid who managed to silence 47,785 of his native New Yorkers on another chilly night in Queens. Lannan became only the third Nationals hurler to strike out 11 batters in a game, joining Esteban Loaiza (who struck out 11 twice in 2005) and John Patterson (who struck out 13 in starts in both 2005 and 2006).

“I’m pretty sure I had a lot of people here,” Lannan said. “I’m just glad they got to experience it.”

Lannan spent Tuesday night at his parents’ house before returning to the team’s Manhattan hotel in preparation for last night’s game, but he knew he would have a host of supporters in the stands for his first Shea start. (He was with the Nationals for a series here last summer but did not pitch.)

Those nerves might have been on display in the early going last night. Jose Reyes led off the first with a single to center, and Ryan Church followed with a drive to deep left-center that caromed off Wily Mo Pena’s outstretched glove for an RBI double that put the Mets ahead 1-0.

But Lannan quickly hunkered down and seized control of the ballgame. He got David Wright to line out to third, then started making batters swing and miss with stunning regularity.

Carlos Delgado went down. So did Angel Pagan. Then Brady Clark. Then Raul Casanova.

By the time Lannan whiffed Casanova again in the fifth, he had recorded his 10th strikeout, more than doubling his previous career high. To that point, 10 of his 14 outs came via strikeout.

“The slider really helped me,” Lannan said. “I had a good feel of it today. And my curveball worked real well, too.”

The Nationals provided their young starter with the slimmest of leads thanks to the kind of timely hit that has been in such short supply for more than two weeks. With one out and a runner on first in the fourth, Nick Johnson crushed a 2-2 offering from Nelson Figueroa over the right-field fence. Johnson’s second homer of the season and his first RBI in a week put Washington ahead 2-1 and put Lannan in position to earn perhaps the biggest win of his young career.

But in order for that to happen, the Nationals’ newly configured bullpen was going to have to record nine outs without allowing a run to score. No such luck.

With closer Chad Cordero relegated to mop-up duty until he can find his mysteriously lost arm strength, Acta turned to the right-handed trio of Saul Rivera, Luis Ayala and Jon Rauch to finish this one off. Rivera churned out 12/3 solid innings but was done in when second baseman Ronnie Belliard booted Church’s eighth-inning grounder.

Ayala entered and walked Wright, prompting Acta to summon Rauch (his new closer until Cordero regains the manager’s trust) to try to escape the jam. The tall right-hander battled Delgado through a six-pitch at-bat but succumbed to a line-drive single to right that tied the game, quashed Lannan’s chance to earn the win and ultimately sent this one into extra innings.

“It’s a bummer because the kid had a tremendous outing,” Acta said. “We as an organization and myself as a manager, I’m very proud of this kid. Let’s not forget this kid was pitching at A-ball last year. He comes to Shea Stadium as a local boy, goes out there and gives us a tremendous effort.”

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