NEW YORK — There is nothing about what John Lannan has done this season that seems normal to him. He looks around at the starting pitchers the Washington Nationals have used for the majority of this season, the power arms that pound hitters day after day, and knows he does not fit the mold.
But he never fancied himself a fill-in, a replacement for one of the game’s brightest talents, assuming Stephen Strasburg’s spot in the rotation, the same way he never envisioned spending his 2012 season at Triple-A Syracuse.
“It’s definitely strange,” Lannan said Wednesday night after he helped shut out the New York Mets in a 2-0, sweep-clinching victory at Citi Field.
“There’s a lot of strange things going on. What’s going on with Stras, it hasn’t happened before.”
But none of that matters to Lannan when he steps on the mound. It can’t. What matters for the Nationals, as their magic number to clinch both a playoff spot and the National League East crown seems to shrink by two each day — and dropped to five and 11 respectively — is that Lannan tossed 5⅔ scoreless innings to lead them Wednesday night.
What matters is that even without being the same type of fireballer that the rest of his rotation mates are, without having spent the season alongside them in the big leagues, Lannan is still the major league pitcher the Nationals have always known him to be. And the one they need him to be every fifth day for the rest of the season.
“It’s a pretty inspiring story, in all seriousness,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, who hit a solo home run in the eighth to build on the one Ryan Zimmerman hit in the fourth for the night’s only offense.
“These guys are over there licking their chops. They finally get to face a starter who’s not throwing 95-96 mph, and he comes down and shuts them down.”
“If you’re not pulling for him, you’re not human,” added left-hander Sean Burnett, who combined with Drew Storen for a scoreless ninth, Burnett’s first action in 10 days after an irritated nerve kept him out.
Lannan didn’t do anything that he hasn’t done before. He didn’t pile up the strikeouts, he had two. He kept his command in check, walking only his final batter of the night, and got the Mets to pound the ball into the ground so that his defense could perform behind him. He wasn’t like the rest of the Nationals’ starters, but he didn’t have to be.
“It’s been hard [not to try to be that type of pitcher],” Lannan said “I’m not going to say I went out there trying to throw 96, but this rotation’s different. There’s something about it. Every five days when Stephen was in it … day after day, there’s no giving up. I had to just not try to do what they do. I’m not necessarily that type of pitcher, but I do like to compete and that’s the one thing I did see was them competing. And I can do that.”
In three major league starts this season, Lannan is 3-0 and has a 2.41 ERA. He’s rarely faltered, despite whatever mental hurdles he’s had to clear in order to ensure that he doesn’t. He scattered five hits Wednesday night and watched as five relievers combined to lock down the rest of the game.
“How about John Lannan?” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, opening his postgame press conference with a question of his own, a smile plastered to his face.
He had plenty to smile about. The Nationals will go into this weekend’s showdown with the Atlanta Braves with an 8½ -game lead in the National League East, a magic number of just five to clinch a playoff spot and 11 to seal the division crown. They did what they came to do in New York, finishing the season with a 14-4 record against the Mets.
“This was a big series. We needed to kinda drive the nail in [the Mets’] coffin here and come into Atlanta with a good frame of mind. And that’s what we’re doing.”
Lannan is no stranger to pitching in September games for the Nationals, but never like this. Never with the energy and electricity that pulses around his team each day as they inch closer to the organization’s first playoff berth since moving to D.C. His role is different than it has been in years past, but he’s back to being a member of their rotation.
“You could definitely feel the difference,” Lannan said. “Just being on this team right now is incredible. You can not only see it but you can feel the chemistry and everything. It’s something special and I’m just proud to be a part of it right now.
“Now I’m just looking forward to the fifth day.”