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When he's at his best, John Lannan is a study in pitching simplicity. There's nothing fancy about the 24-year-old left-hander; he simply stands on the mound, drives his two-seam fastball down in the strike zone, turns and watches as batters beat it into the ground and toward the Nationals' infielders, and repeats. Pitch counts stay down, games are over in two and a half hours, give or take, and the Nationals get one of their easiest days of the week.
For some reason, Lannan wasn't that pitcher the first half of this year; he lost some control of his fastball, started walking batters and let one-run innings snowball into three- or four-run innings. But ever since he came back from Double-A Harrisburg in July, Lannan has been working back toward his pitching zenith. He hit it on Sunday.
In a scant 93 pitches, Lannan got 23 outs against the St. Louis Cardinals. Thirteen of them came off ground balls, and the Cardinals spent two of those to get their only run off Lannan. His performance in the Nationals' 4-2 win over St. Louis was, stated plainly, his best of the year.
Jim Riggleman meets with the media following the Nats' 4-2 win over St. Louis
"He was outstanding," manager Jim Riggleman said. "When he's getting some balls over to that left side of the infield, it's not that those guys really suck everything up over there; that's an indication that he's getting hitters to do with the ball what he's trying to get them to do."
Lannan has allowed more than two earned runs just once in his six starts since returning from Harrisburg, and has three quality starts in that time. But the Nationals' Opening Day starter hadn't pitched as far into a game this year as he did on Sunday.
"It was more mentally being in each pitch, being confident in each pitch and knowing why I'm throwing it," Lannan said. "I did a pretty good job of that, especially with lefties. I made smarter pitches."
The only lefty in the Cardinals' lineup, Skip Schumaker, went 1-for-4 against Lannan, leading off the game with a single but failing to hit another ball out of the infield. Lannan, oddly enough, has allowed lefties to hit .339 against him this year, as he's worked to throw his fastball to the outside of the plate against them.
He said he's still got room for improvement, but for Lannan, that probably means doing more of what he did on Sunday. With a chance to win a series against the defending NL Central champions, Lannan did what he does best.
"The last two years, I've been at the same point," Lannan said. "Now, it's kind of, pass that, mentally, and get better."