- The Washington Times - Monday, June 29, 2009

BALTIMORE | When the Washington Nationals were stuck in a three-game losing streak June 6 and needed a big-time pitching performance to get out of their funk, they turned to John Lannan.

When the Nationals were stuck in a four-game slide June 17 with their manager’s job possibly on the line and facing a must-win game at Yankee Stadium, they turned to Lannan.

So did it surprise anyone Sunday when a Washington club desperately trying to avoid a sweep at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles not only turned to the young ace of its young rotation but had all the faith in the world he again would come through and win?

“We expect that out of him now,” manager Manny Acta said after Lannan went 7 1/3 strong innings en route to a 5-3 victory at Oriole Park. “These types of outings every five days, when we’re struggling, he’s given us a chance to be in the ballgame.”

There’s a word for pitchers who build a reputation for snapping losing streaks: They’re called stoppers, and it has become clear Lannan has taken on that role for the Nationals.

Beginning with that complete-game victory over the Mets on June 6, the 24-year-old lefty established a new benchmark for success. In five starts since, he’s 3-0 with a 2.19 ERA, having never allowed more than three runs in an outing.

“It makes me feel better,” Lannan said. “Last year, I would have a quality start or two in a row, and then I would kind of fall off and give up five or four [runs] in a start. I’m finally finding some consistency, which is great.”

Great for Lannan, who now finds himself 5-5 with a 3.45 ERA. But also great for a Washington club that is watching its Opening Day starter develop into the true leader of a rotation that doesn’t boast anyone over 25.

“I think he is [the leader] without a lot of hoopla or anything like that,” Acta said. “I think the other kids realize that, too. He doesn’t have the 95, 96 mph fastball, but he leads by example. … I think a lot of the other kids look at him - even if a couple of them played with him in the minor leagues - as the leader of this rotation right now.”

Lannan would be the first to admit he wasn’t in top form Sunday. He allowed the Orioles’ leadoff man to reach base in each of the game’s first four innings, three with walks. But he battled, got some big defensive plays behind him and emerged having allowed only one run until the eighth inning.

Perhaps the game’s key moment came in a tenuous spot in the second inning. Baltimore had scored a run and still had men on first and third with no outs. Lannan, though, got rookie sensation Matt Wieters to hit a sharp grounder to first baseman Nick Johnson. Johnson stepped on the bag, then realized Luke Scott had strayed too far off third base and fired a throw across the diamond that set in motion a 3-5-2 double play.

“It was huge,” Lannan said. “In that situation, you need some kind of play like that. That really helped out.”

So, too, did a pair of home runs hit by the Nationals - one from a likely source, one from a not-so-likely source.

Adam Dunn got things started with a two-run, fourth-inning blast that traveled 442 feet. The ball landed on Eutaw Street behind the right-field stands and one-hopped the B&O; Warehouse. Only a handful of men have accomplished that in the 18 years Oriole Park has been open for business.

“I hadn’t hit one in a while, so it was a really good feeling,” said Dunn, who last homered June 17 - in the same game Lannan won at Yankee Stadium.

The second blast came from Willie Harris, a seventh-inning solo shot over the right-field scoreboard. It was only the 24th homer of the utilityman’s career, but it was the latest big moment for a guy who is establishing himself as a key member of Washington’s lineup.

Indeed, Acta on Sunday decided to put Harris in the leadoff spot, bumping down his usual top four batters (Cristian Guzman, Johnson, Ryan Zimmerman and Dunn) a notch in an attempt to “lengthen our lineup” and get more production from the bottom half. Harris relishes the opportunity.

“It’s almost like you get to create havoc,” he said of leading off. “I like starting some trouble and causing pitchers some problems.”

Acta said the lineup will last at least another day.

“Why change it tomorrow?” he said with a smile. “We’re going to stick with it for one more game. If we win, we’ll keep it. If we lose, I’ll stop it.”

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