- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 18, 2009

NEW YORK | When the Washington Nationals need a ledge to grab on their way down a free fall, when they’re in search of a stopper, it’s becoming apparent there’s only one place they can go.

It’s to a gangly 24-year-old kid who grew up in New York and had pitched in Yankee Stadium once before — as the undercard to eventual first-round pick Pedro Alvarez in a tryout before the 2005 draft.

But John Lannan, unheralded as he is, keeps finding a way to do it. And he did it again Wednesday.

Lannan threw 108 pitches, 71 for strikes, in a sublime 8 1/3 innings at Yankee Stadium, beating back the New York Yankees and giving the Washington Nationals a much-needed 3-2 victory.

Lannan’s formula is never complicated or fancy; he simply pounds his two-seam fastball into the lower half of the strike zone, takes the ball back and fires the same thing again. It’s made him a winner in a number of big moments disproportionate to his short career — keeping Barry Bonds stuck on 755 homers, besting John Smoltz on the night he struck out his 3,000th hitter — and for most of Wednesday night, it helped him stand firm against a menacing lineup.

He took a no-hitter into the fifth inning, and by the time it was broken up the Nationals had already taken a lead, starting with a blast from Adam Dunn.

Dunn was teed up for a fastball when Wang spotted him a 3-0 count, and when it came, the big slugger squared it to the barrel of his bat with an uppercut blow, sending a fierce shot into the back sections of the right-field bleachers. It gave the Nationals the first run of the game for the fifth time in five games of this road trip.

The Nationals added to the lead in the fifth, with the help of a dubious call that has typically gone against them.

With Willie Harris on second and one out in the fifth, Cristian Guzman hit a grounder to Alex Rodriguez at third. First-base umpire Larry Vanover — the crew chief of the unit that ruled against the Nationals on two controversial home run replays against the Mets last month — ruled Guzman safe; TV replays showed Rodriguez’s throw reached Mark Teixeira a half-step ahead of Guzman.

That bit of luck became crucial on the next at-bat. Nick Johnson sent a drive slicing to left center, well in front of Melky Cabrera’s ill-advised dive. The ball rolled all the way to the wall, and the Nationals scored a pair of runs to take a 3-0 lead.

Lannan’s first of two blemishes came in the fifth inning, when Robinson Cano broke up his no-hitter by hitting a home run over the right-field wall to bring the Yankees within two.

He would only give up three hits the rest of the game. Everything else was mostly on the ground — nine of the last 13 batters Lannan retired were by groundouts — and even the hardest smashes were gobbled up by a Nationals defense that, for once, didn’t break.

Johnson made a diving stop of a Jorge Posada grounder to end the seventh. Anderson Hernandez calmly took in a Ramiro Pena shot that finished the eighth.

It was just the third time in 11 games Washington didn’t make an error, keeping the team’s NL-worst total at 61.

But there was time for one Yankees rally, though, which started on Lannan’s only other mistake.

The 24-year-old nonchalantly skipped over the third-base line at the start of the ninth inning, fixated on his second complete game in three starts. But Johnny Damon homered, and a laboring Lannan retired Nick Swisher on a hard-hit fly ball before Teixeira singled off him and convinced manager Manny Acta to go to the bullpen for closer-of-the-moment Mike MacDougal.

Teixeira promptly stole second, then swiped third uncontested as MacDougal fussed over Rodriguez at the plate.

MacDougal walked Rodgriuez, bringing the crowd of 46,052 to its feet for an epic at-bat with Cano. Every pitch MacDougal threw him was a fastball, all located off the outer edge of the plate. Cano fouled six of them off and took two, before grounding one to Guzman for the start of a double play.

Lannan watched the ball move from Guzman to Hernandez to Johnson, then hurdled the railing over the Nationals’ dugout and clapped his hands three times, with yet another big win on his short resume.

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