- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 23, 2009

From a pure, figure-it-out-with-a-20-question-quiz standpoint, Craig Stammen and John Lannan wouldn’t seem to have much in common.

They met at Class A Vermont in 2005, both unheralded products of the Washington Nationals’ draft that year (Lannan went in the 11th round, Stammen in the 12th). An obvious connection was nowhere to be found.

“We’re kind of polar opposites,” Stammen said. “He’s a New Yorker. I’m from the Midwest. That says enough, I think, right there.”

But they hit it off somehow or another, first picking each other out as roommates “when nobody knew anybody,” Stammen said. They came through the minors together, first at Class A Savannah, then at Class A Potomac, their pitching styles becoming as inseparable as their friendship.

And while their careers have evolved differently, with Lannan establishing himself in the big leagues a year before Stammen, success came almost in lockstep for the two the past couple of days.

One day after Lannan threw his first career shutout, the rookie followed with a gem of his own, taking a no-hitter into the fifth inning and allowing one run in 7 1/3 innings during a 3-1 win over the New York Mets. It gave the Nationals their second win in a row and just their third home series win over the Mets in five years. But just as important, it gave Stammen another outing to build on as he and Lannan try to fortify their places in the rotation.

Stammen, who won for the third time in a little more than a month, pitches almost like a mirror image of Lannan, throwing the same underwhelming two-seam fastball from the right side that Lannan does from the left.

“We lived together, did everything together. We still do everything together,” Stammen said. “We’d talk about what we thought it was going to take to get to the big leagues. He figured it out a little bit sooner than I did. But we were always kind of that 1-2 combo coming up.”

In his last four starts, Stammen has gone at least seven innings three times. His ERA in that stretch is 2.14, and he has thrown more than 60 percent of his pitches for strikes in all those outings.

Stammen was nearly flawless Wednesday. He retired the first 12 batters and had the no-hitter going into the fifth.

He struck out five, and 11 of the 17 remaining outs he recorded were on ground balls.

Stammen threw 20 of his first 28 pitches for strikes, setting everything up off a sinking fastball that was sharp right from the start. An inexplicable defensive sequence in the sixth inning, though, nearly cost him a chance at a win.

With two outs, Angel Pagan pulled a fly ball to deep left center. Nyjer Morgan undercut the ball’s path and didn’t have time to chase it down. He fired a throw to Cristian Guzman, who was cutting off the play at short, but Pagan already had pulled into third base by the time Guzman turned toward the infield.

That didn’t stop Guzman from spinning and launching a throw that missed Ryan Zimmerman, bounced off the stairs in the Mets’ dugout and allowed Pagan to tie the game at 1-1.

When Stammen gave up a hit and a walk to the next two batters, it looked as if the rookie was about to unravel. But he got David Wright to fly out to end the inning, and the damage done by the Guzman error was gone by the end of the sixth.

Adam Dunn doubled to start the bottom of the inning, and two batters later, Josh Willingham squared up a Mike Pelfrey hanging slider for his 13th homer of the year to put the Nationals up 3-1.

It was one of Willingham’s four hits on a night that had much more in common with his first-half tear than anything else he had done since the All-Star break.

Batting .366 with three homers and 10 RBI in 11 July games before the break, Willingham hadn’t had a hit since the Nationals came back. After a day off Tuesday, Willingham returned to stinging the ball. He tried stretching his final hit, a double to center, into a triple, only to retreat when Nick Johnson stayed put at third.

“I didn’t feel like I was in a slump,” Willingham said. “It was basically four games against Chicago. I think sometimes you add pressure, it’s worse.”

With his home run, though, he took most of the pressure off Stammen, freeing the young right-hander up to match Lannan’s ante from the night before.

“It’s a credit to our system,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “There’s some light at the end of the tunnel when you see those performances.”

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