- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2009

KISSIMMEE, Fla. | John Lannan paused and thought about the question for a moment. Where was he two years ago at this time?

“Two years ago today, I was in the accelerated program with Dmitri Young,” the left-hander said Wednesday, recalling his place in the Washington Nationals‘ early prospects camp in spring 2007.

Lannan was just another minor league pitcher seemingly on the long, slow track toward the big show. He opened that season at Class A Potomac, a 30-minute drive from the District but light years from the majors.

“A lot of things have changed,” he said with a laugh. “I hadn’t really thought about it. I’ve just kind of been going along for the ride, trying to take advantage of every opportunity they give me.”

The opportunities afforded Lannan by the Nationals have been remarkable, and he has made the most of them. Promoted three times in four months during that 2007 season, he wound up pitching in the big leagues and striking out Barry Bonds when the slugger was a home run away from breaking Hank Aaron’s career record.

He didn’t make the Opening Day rotation in 2008, but he returned to the majors within a week and stayed there for the duration, making 31 starts and posting a 3.91 ERA.

And now, at age 24, with a career record of 11-17, he finds himself Washington’s No. 1 starter.

That may be a bit of a misnomer. As manager Manny Acta points out, the Nationals don’t have a true No. 1 starter. Lannan is merely the best they have, and he’s not even assured of getting the nod on Opening Day. (Acta doesn’t plan to make that decision for a few more weeks.)

But the poised young hurler understands the role he has on this pitching staff. And he intends to handle it accordingly.

The first thing Lannan points out when asked about the responsibility of being at the top of Washington’s rotation is that he needs to pitch deeper into ballgames.

“Last year, I was going five or six, occasionally seven innings,” he said. “As a No. 1 starter, you’ve got to go out there and get more innings in. You can’t leave your bullpen hanging. As a No. 1 starter, that’s what they’re looking for. And that’s what I expect from myself if I’m the No. 1 starter.”

On the surface, Lannan certainly doesn’t possess ace stuff. His fastball usually hovers around the high 80s. Tall and gawky with his pant legs pulled up high, he doesn’t exactly make for an intimidating presence on the mound.

But he’s an intense competitor, and he knows what he is. He doesn’t try to blow away hitters with a fastball he doesn’t own. He tries to use his strengths to his advantage and usually comes out on top.

“You look at No. 1 starters, and… I mean, CC Sabathia is a No. 1 starter,” he said. “If I start thinking about being a No. 1 starter and try to be as nasty as Roy Oswalt or Tim Lincecum, I’ll be all over the place. I know what I have to do.”

Lannan’s humility, along with his competitive nature, makes him the least of the Nationals’ concerns. The club’s coaching and front-office staffs have plenty of decisions to make this spring - who will start in the outfield, who will fill out the bullpen - but they don’t have to worry about handing the ball to their young left-hander every five days.

And they don’t worry about his ability to handle the pressure of being the guy at the front of their rotation.

“I think that’s one of the things that helps him the most,” Acta said. “He doesn’t show his emotions. He’s a very cold-blooded type of guy. I don’t think whether he pitches in the first slot or the fifth is going to affect him either way. … He’s had some rough outings here over the last year and a half, and still he goes out there five days later and doesn’t show any effect from it. So I don’t think that will do anything to him.”

Lannan was on top of his game Wednesday in the Nationals’ exhibition opener against the Houston Astros. He faced six batters, retired them all and didn’t come close to reaching his pitch limit of 35.

It was the first step toward starting on Opening Day against the Florida Marlins, a remarkable feat for a guy who two years ago was happy just to be in an accelerated minor league program.

“Of course,” Lannan said when asked whether it would mean a lot to get the Opening Day nod. “There’s only 30 of them. Even being a big league pitcher, there’s only 150 of them. I’m just grateful for the chance I’m going to get and the chances I’ve had.”

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