Ted Leavengood: John Lannan, the perfect National

The conventional wisdom early in 2004 was that Washington, D.C., might not be ready for baseball quite yet. In upstate New York, much the same was said of John Lannan as a college pitcher who was not really ready for the big leagues. And yet here they both are, together, at this critical juncture in 2012. Every game for the next two weeks will take on added importance. It is all on the line now as Lannan steps in this week for Stephen Strasburg.

Lannan and Washington both came out of nowhere in 2005. Starting his senior year at Siena College, he was second tier behind staff ace, Ken Grant, whose low-90s fastball was judged to be worthy of a big league team. But it was Lannan who went 10-2 with a 2.29 ERA that year to lead the Saints. It was he rather than Grant taken in the First-Year Player Draft.

Lannan went in the 11th round in the Nationals’ first ever amateur draft. Baseball America’s scouting on the Siena College product noted the lack of an effective curveball and a fastball that topped out at 88 with little upside for further development. “He commands his changeup to both sides of the plate, but has no real breaking ball as he struggles to spin a curveball,” said the report.

Lannan did not light up the stat sheets in his first two seasons, but in 2007 after working with fellow-prospect Glenn Gibson and Gibson’s father, former Tigers pitcher Paul Gibson, Lannan’s stuff improved noticeably. During 2007, he was unhittable in three stops in the minors. With a composite record of 12-3 and an ERA of 2.31, Lannan was called up to the big leagues at the end of July to make his debut for the Nationals.

It was an inauspicious beginning, much the way things were going in D.C. for the Nationals. Both were battling the odds, hanging in. But in his first start against the Phillies, behind 3-2 in the fifth inning, Lannan hit a bump. To start the fifth inning, he hit Chase Utley and then Ryan Howard in consecutive at-bats. The umpire ejected him, the only time a pitcher has ever been ejected from his first major league start.

Lannan rebounded from the ignominious beginnings and was the Nationals best pitcher in 2008. His 3.91 ERA was respectable and, on a staff with a collective ERA of 4.66, was a lonely beacon of hope. In his next three seasons, he was the only dependable talent the Nationals pitching staff had other than Livan Hernandez.

The first time I ever saw Lannan on the field was early in April 2008 at a Braves game. Lannan was hanging around the batting cage while Atlanta’s players took their cuts. The pitchers were getting in their hacks and Lannan went over to Tom Glavine and introduced himself. After talking briefly to the future Hall of Famer, Lannan headed back to the dugout. It was clear that Glavine was a hero to the Nationals rookie. I asked him whether Glavine had told him how to get the umpires to call that outside pitch of his -- the one that was often several inches off the plate - a strike. Lannan just smiled and said, “I wish.”

Lannan has never been pretentious, just business-like, a consummate professional. But we saw the pride the man takes in his craft this year when he was sent down to Triple-A Syracuse after Ross Detwiler outpitched him in spring training. Lannan demanded a trade and would likely have gotten one had he pitched well at Syracuse.

Washington fans can take heart that Lannan was in too much of a funk to prove himself at Triple-A until July and August. Maybe Mike Rizzo never intended to trade Lannan, but as we head down the stretch, most Washington fans are happy to have him as the stand-in for Strasburg. Lannan is going to have immense pressure to succeed. It will be almost like that first season in the big leagues when he had to go out and face Barry Bonds.

Bonds had tied Aaron’s all-time home run record the night before Lannan faced him in San Francisco. Bonds and the pundits were ready to write Lannan’s name into the record books alongside such names as Al Downing and Tom Zachary who had given up other record-breaking home runs. But Lannan turned in the same gutty performance that he has become famous for in Washington. Bonds went 0-for-3 with a walk and Lannan gave up only a single run over seven innings.

Is Lannan Strasburg? No, and he does not have to be. He just has to be John Lannan, a pretty fair country pitcher in his own right. He has to be the senior member of the Nationals pitching staff, who remembers the long journey this team has made. It is a chance for both Lannan and the Nationals to complete their journey, to realize a dream neither thought possible back in 2007. No one deserves to write his name on the final chapter of the 2012 season more than Lannan.

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.

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