It is certainly noteworthy that the two left-handed starters who fought for the last spot in the Washington rotation in March were the ones who stood up to the Braves four months later when the games really counted. Lohn Lannan lost out when the Nats came north in the spring, and he probably deserved better. But after this weekend, no one will ever again question whether he has enough heart to pitch in the majors.
Assuming that the Lannan who pitched to a 4.89 ERA at Triple-A Syracuse was on the mound Saturday night, many a Nationals fan was writing off not only the Atlanta series, but the second half of the 2012 season. “They could lose all four,” dejected fans said after Ben Sheets shut out the Nats in game two of the series.
But the Lannan of the 3.99 ERA over six major league seasons turned in a heroic performance that night, going seven strong frames until Roger Bernadina knocked in the game-winner in a 5-2 win. Lannan’s gutty performance saved the series and probably much more - the Nationals’ pride, for starters.
Like Lannan, these Nationals are too good to write off, too good to wilt in the face of building playoff pressures. So enter Ross Detwiler and Ryan Zimmerman on Sunday. Two homers by Zimmerman and seven innings almost identical to Lannan’s and Wasington had a 9-2 win that restored much of the swagger lost on Friday night.
There were more heroes than Lannan, but he was the “Horatio at the Bridge” who made the initial stand, whose single game will be remembered for weeks to come. But the surging offense may be the most heartening portent for the crucial months of the season still to come.
Bernadina, Danny Espinosa and Michael Morse all had three hits in support of Detwiler on Sunday as the Nationals banged out 18 hits. Zimmerman is playing on a different planet with five home runs and a .368 batting average for the past 10 games. But Morse, Espinosa and Bernadina are all hiiting over .300 for that span as well.
The Atlanta Braves made a statement Friday night when they came back from a 9-0 deficit. They put down a marker that said to the young Washington team, “not so fast young’uns, you have a lot to prove.” The Braves have made themselves the primary challenger to the Nationals, and it is hard not to draw comparisons to July 2005, when the Braves swamped Washington’s inaugural team.
But the Braves still had John Smoltz in his prime in 2005. They had Andruw Jones and his 51-home run season. These Braves have a strong attack as they proved on Friday night. But there is no John Smoltz. Tim Hudson is 36 now and Brandon Beachy is on the shelf until 2013.
It is the Nationals who have the stacked deck in 2012. Zimmerman is back and he has a supporting cast that is looking better every day. There are concerns, of course. The Braves could trade for the ace they lack. The Nationals bullpen could wilt from overuse. Anything is possible and there is a lot of baseball left to play.
But it was Lannan’s statement that will resonate going forward. He is just the most noteworthy depth that Mike Rizzo can deploy in the coming weeks. Drew Storen should return to form and Jayson Werth, as well.
The Nationals may be a bit young to stake a claim on greatness just yet. But they may be too good to fail, as well, too strong from top to bottom not to grind this season out just the way they started it, on top of the National League East.
Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released last June. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.