One pitch hung in John Lannan’s mind.
With the bases loaded, the Washington Nationals right-hander threw a sinker to Ryan Howard. The ball didn’t sink. Instead, it smacked into the pad on the right elbow of the Philadelphia Phillies slugger and forced home a run.
“That pitch just …” Lannan said after the Nationals fell to the Phillies 3-2 Wednesday night at Nationals Park.
He trailed off, searched for words, then stopped talking. All Lannan could do was shake his head.
There are mistakes. And then there are mistakes when you’re pitching against Roy Halladay.
Each miscue, like the errant sinker that was the difference in the game, takes on disproportionate significance. That’s what happens when facing the $20 million per year right-hander who threw a no-hitter and perfect game last season, has earned two Cy Youngs and, against the Nationals, looked more machine than man.
For eight cold and windy innings, Halladay baffled the Nationals (5-6) and extended his streak of scoreless innings against them to 30. Before the ninth, all he allowed were two singles to Adam LaRoche, who convinced manager Jim Riggleman to let him play after straining his left groin Sunday. But Halladay moved the ball around, used laser-like control and commanded each of his pitches.
In other words, it was a typical Halladay outing.
“It looked like he had it all going,” Riggleman said. “He could throw any pitch at any time. He’s just the real deal.”
But even real deals run into problems. Halladay’s came in the ninth, long after the announced crowd of 16,914 streamed to the exits. A vocal group of maroon-clad Phillies supporters remained.
Then Rick Ankiel led off the ninth with a double, Jayson Werth singled and Laynce Nix and Danny Espinosa followed with RBI singles.
Two were on. Only one out. Up came Matt Stairs, pinch-hitting for Jerry Hairston Jr. But Stairs never took the bat off his shoulder and struck out on three straight pitches. Same for Ivan Rodriguez, to end the game.
Halladay got a called strike with a 92-mph fastball, Rodriguez fouled off the next pitch then was called out on a 76-mph curve that broke like a Wiffle Ball on the outside corner.
Rodriguez believed the pitch to be outside. His shouts and tossed helmet didn’t matter. When you’re Halladay, who threw 88 of his 123 pitches for strikes, you get those calls.
“Some of those pitches were a little questionable,” Riggleman said after Halladay finished with nine strikeouts and two walks in the complete game.
The late rally left Lannan, who tossed six solid innings, wondering what might have happened if he didn’t hit Howard.
“If he gets out of that inning, it’s a totally different ball game,” Ian Desmond said of the fifth, where the Phillies also added a run on a single from Placido Polanco.
Perhaps a moral victory remained in the near comeback. That’s what Halladay does: leaves teams searching for silver linings and hopeful sentiments on nights where even one mistake would be too many.
“That’s one thing that Jayson (Werth) brought to our team, that never-say-die mentality,” Desmond said. “He wants to win. That’s what getting a playoff-caliber free agent does. He comes in here and makes us believe in ourselves. We’ve got to keep on pushing.”
But Lannan wanted more than a moral victory.
“You’ve got to match (Halladay) and I didn’t do that,” he said. “Those are the guys that teams turn to to get wins. I want to be like that.”