- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 22, 2009

If someone was going to reward Jim Riggleman with his first victory as the Washington Nationals’ interim manager, it figured to be John Lannan.

As poorly as the Nationals had played in their first five games out of an All-Star break that featured a managerial change, at least they could take solace knowing their young ace would return to the mound Tuesday. He may not always produce wins, but he often gives his team a real chance whenever he pitches.

So while Lannan’s shutout in Washington’s 4-0 victory over the New York Mets may have surprised many in the crowd, it wasn’t shocking to anyone inside the home clubhouse who has come to expect this kind of outing from the 24-year-old.

As third baseman Ryan Zimmerman put it: “That’s normal for him, right?”

It’s beginning to feel that way. While Lannan may not have notched a shutout in any of his 56 previous career starts, he has authored enough gems to suggest it would happen before long.

“He always gives you 100 percent,” catcher Wil Nieves said. “And he’s consistent. That’s what makes a good pitcher. I think for you to be a big league pitcher for a lot of years, you have to be consistent, and he’s one of those guys. So it didn’t surprise me.”

This was the first shutout by a Nationals pitcher since Pedro Astacio two-hit the Atlanta Braves on Aug. 15, 2006, and the first shutout by any pitcher in the 119 games played at Nationals Park.

It didn’t fit the normal description of dominance - Lannan scattered seven hits over his nine innings - but it boasted some remarkable qualities. Lannan didn’t issue a single walk. He threw 80 of his 106 pitches for strikes and he threw first-pitch strikes to 23 of the 32 batters he faced.

For the fourth time in his last nine starts, Lannan pitched at least into the eighth inning. He had done it only once before this season.

“Before it was my goal, but I’d never been there before,” he said. “Now I’ve been there. I’ve been in the eighth, and I know how it feels. I feel mentally and physically strong in those later innings. It’s a great feeling.”

It also was a great feeling for Lannan to hand the game ball to Riggleman afterward, the interim manager’s first victory in six tries since taking over for Manny Acta during the All-Star break.

“I can’t lie to you,” Riggleman said. “‘It feels good to win a ballgame.”

And it felt good to catch a break for a change.

With the bases loaded and one out in the fourth, Alberto Gonzalez struck a sharp line drive to right field. Jeff Francoeur camped under the ball and prepared to unleash his gifted arm in an attempt to gun down a tagging Zimmerman at the plate. Just one problem: Francoeur forgot to catch the ball.

Comedy then ensued. All three baserunners took off as Francoeur scrambled to retrieve the ball. Zimmerman scored, and Adam Dunn made it to third, but Francoeur managed to get a throw into second base in time to force out Austin Kearns. Gonzalez, of course, reached safely at first.

However it happened, the strange play resulted in a run for the Nationals, who immediately added another in conventional fashion: a single by Nieves that scored Dunn.

“That’s what we have to do with runners in scoring position,” Zimmerman said. “And continue to have those kind of at-bats instead of the ones we’ve been having.”

Washington then took advantage of Oliver Perez’s characteristic wildness to tack on a couple more runs in the fifth. The erratic lefty started off the inning by plunking Nyjer Morgan, then walked Zimmerman for one of his six free passes of the evening. A base hit by Dunn followed by a sacrifice fly by Josh Willingham pushed two more runs across the plate and gave Lannan plenty of cushion.

Not that the Nationals’ emerging ace needed all the support on this night. As the lefty has come to realize, he’s capable of performing like this every time he takes the stage.

“I’m very deceptive,” Lannan said. “I mean, if a guy’s mis-hitting it at 88 mph, there’s something going on. There has to be a little bit of funk. That has to help me trust my stuff a little better. … There’s something in my delivery or something that just throws off hitters a little bit. It might be later movement. But I’ve learned that I can trust my fastball to be effective.”

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