- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2008

On ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” on Tuesday night, the cable network had a list of sizzling aces for that day’s action.

It included Atlanta’s John Smoltz, who had recorded his 3,000th strikeout against the Washington Nationals that night.

The list, though, did not include the pitcher who beat Smoltz — Washington’s John Lannan, whose seven shutout innings against the Braves were one run better than Smoltz’s one-run performance over the same seven innings. It gave the Nationals a chance to add five more in the ninth for a desperately — very desperately needed — 6-0 Washington win.

Perhaps sizzling ace is not an accurate description of Lannan, who is not by anyone’s standards yet an ace.

How about the pitcher who threw his drowning team a life preserver?

How about the hurler who offered a glass of water to his team wandering the desert?

That’s what Lannan did Tuesday night in Atlanta — saved his team from the embarrassment of coming home to Washington nearly empty-handed.

He saved his team, for the moment at least, the embarrassment of slipping further into the abyss the Nationals have fallen into since that 8-7 loss in Philadelphia on April 3. Since then, the Nationals had won just two games before Lannan’s life-saving performance. And after last night’s 7-2 loss to the New York Mets in the first game of an 11-game homestand at Nationals Park, the Nationals could be squandering the stopper performance by Lannan and falling back into their downward slide.

In this short but disappointing season so far for Washington, there has been no bigger game by a Nationals pitcher than what John Lannan threw Tuesday night. So, overshadowed by Smoltz’s accomplishment and the puckmania that had taken over Washington, Lannan’s outing is worthy of another day of attention — particularly because little the Nationals have done this year is worthy of attention since Opening Night.

“It was important,” manager Manny Acta said. “We really needed that game, because of how our offense is right now.

“We were talking before the game, saying, ‘We need a shutout. That’s what we need,’ ” Acta said. “He went out there and gave us seven scoreless innings. And what made it more impressive was that everything revolved around John Smoltz getting his 3,000th strikeout. This kid goes out there and matches him zero for zero and gives us the victory.”

That is how it goes when a team is in the sort of slump the Nationals are in — when everything seems to be going wrong. Somebody needs to step up and take the wrong out of the equation, at least long enough for the team to get it right.

The Nationals didn’t get it right last night against Johan Santana. But there is no doubt that this team was bleeding from everywhere and somebody needed to stop it. The 23-year-old left-hander from Long Beach, N.Y., provided the bandages with his impressive, composed, pitching style.

The need for such a performance wasn’t lost on Lannan going into game. He knew his team needed that kind of effort.

“I always go out there thinking shutout,” Lannan said. “I kept on battling and throwing pitches and it worked out for the best.”

“It’s always great to go out there and get a win, especially when you are coming home,” Lannan said. “We are here for about two weeks, and there was a sense that we really pulled together as a team, playing great defense, the bullpen was great and we got some runs late in the game. It was a great overall team effort.”

It was a rare team effort.

“It’s great if someone can run out there and do that, but we need to swing the bats and give them a little cushion out there,” Nick Johnson said. “If he keeps throwing the ball well, we need to swing the bats.”

That’s it, really — the difference between a .500 record at this point in the season and being nearly 10 games under .500 — swinging the bats. And slumps like this feed off themselves as players get caught up in their own frustrations.

“We haven’t hit,” Acta said. “Having such a rough start offensively, it has been tough, because what guys are trying to do is expend all their energy trying to figure out how to get out of a slump.”

What John Lannan did Tuesday night was say to his teammates — don’t worry about it, boys. We can’t lose if they don’t score.

It was a warm fire for his freezing teammates to come in from the cold. But if the Nationals’ bats don’t heat up, this season will be nothing but embers.

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