- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 23, 2009

It required just about every ounce of energy and intestinal fortitude the Washington Nationals had in them to overcome the worst start of John Lannan’s career, the ejection of interim manager Jim Riggleman, a 1-hour, 21-minute rain delay and a seven-run deficit to the Milwaukee Brewers.

Somehow, the Nationals did all that Saturday and drew even with the Brewers after four wild innings on South Capitol Street.

Alas, they forgot to save some of that energy for the remaining five innings and went home late in the evening with another frustrating loss, this one by the almost-comical final score of 11-9.

“You felt the momentum swinging our way a little bit,” said Riggleman, who watched the final six innings from the clubhouse. “We just couldn’t turn it around all the way.”

Washington thus dropped its fifth straight game, though this one bore no resemblance to the four that preceded. Those were nip-and-tuck, low-scoring affairs. This was a three-ring circus, with enough action and momentum swings during the first four innings alone to fill an entire week’s worth of ballgames.

By the time this one finally got underway, the predominant storyline figured to center around Lannan and his disastrous outing. The de facto ace of the Washington staff was battered around during 1 2/3 painful innings, making this the shortest of his 63 career starts. The seven runs he allowed fell just one short of his career-worst (set last August against the Colorado Rockies).

It would be one thing if this were a blip on Lannan’s overall radar, but this was the lefty’s third straight ragged start, making it all the more troubling and confusing for all parties involved. Lannan doesn’t appear to be battling any arm issues; his fastball Saturday night was consistently around 89 mph, no different than usual.

“Physically, I feel fine,” he said.

But his sinker had no sink, and his pitches all stayed up in the strike zone, begging to be mashed. Five of the seven hits Lannan allowed went for extra bases, including a towering, two-run homer by Mike Cameron.

All of a sudden, a guy who had earned quality starts in 10 of 12 appearances has allowed 16 runs and 20 hits in his past 12 innings, raising his ERA from 3.39 to 4.03.

“I guess it is kind of a mental challenge to get past it,” he said. “Something’s got to change, because it’s unacceptable. I’ve just got to do something about it.”

Amazingly, Lannan managed to emerge from the worst start of his career with a no-decision. For that, he could thank his teammates, who stormed back from a 7-0 deficit in incredibly short order.

The Nationals began chipping away at Brewers starter Mike Burns with a couple of runs in the second. But the big rally came in the third, when they loaded the bases with one out and sent Ryan Zimmerman to the plate. The All-Star third baseman, though, was called out by plate umpire Mike Reilly on a check swing, drawing boos from the crowd and drawing Riggleman from the dugout.

He had already come out to dispute two calls, so Reilly’s tolerance for another heated discussion was minimal. He quickly gave Riggleman the heave-ho, eliciting even more boos from the crowd and killing Washington’s momentum.

“I have the utmost respect for both of those umpires I was arguing with tonight,” Riggleman said. “But a couple of calls, I thought, could have gone our way.”

As it turned out, Riggleman had barely begun the trek up the dugout tunnel before his team provided another momentum swing. Ronnie Belliard tattooed Burns’ next pitch over the left-field fence for a grand slam. Just like that, the Nationals were back in the ballgame, down 8-6, and back into the proceedings emotionally, realizing they had a chance to come out of this on a positive note.

“Somebody yelled at me that he hit a grand slam,” Riggleman said. “I can’t say it surprised me, the way Ronnie can swing the bat. He hit the ball hard all night, and I was very happy that he did it.”

The good vibes continued an inning later when a Nyjer Morgan RBI double and an Alberto Gonzalez sacrifice fly tied the score at 8-8 and took Lannan off the hook.

If only Washington could have sustained the momentum required to draw even with Milwaukee. Instead, the offense went silent again and the bullpen surrendered three runs to create another deficit and make this long evening at the ballpark all for naught, even though the manager tried to find a bright light in the end.

“I’m the eternal optimist,” Riggleman said. “I’m just happy that our guys are competing like they are. We’re down in the ballgame. They keep fighting, they keep coming back.”

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