John Lannan began the season as the Nationals' unquestioned ace, and lost that title sometime before Stephen Strasburg stormed into the majors. What drove Lannan from the top of the Nationals' rotation was something more internal and abstract. For whatever reason, the left-hander lost the ability to do what he'd done so well the last two years: pound his sinker for weak groundouts.
Many said it was inevitable, that Lannan's stuff wasn't good enough to be that effective over time. Lannan's elbow discomfort may have explained some of it. But by mid-June, the Nationals had run out of answers. Lannan had a 5.76 ERA and was unable to throw strikes consistently, work effectively against lefties, or avoid the big inning, and the Nationals had to make a change.
They sent Lannan to Double-A Harrisburg on a kind of retreat meant to let him fix what was wrong with his stuff without the pressures of the big leagues, the scrutiny of reporters and the ruthlessness of major league hitters. Lannan returned only the most essential phone calls. He renewed a relationship with Senators pitching coach Randy Tomlin, who'd worked with him in the past, and tore apart his mechanics, trying to get back to being the pitcher that had posted a sub-4.00 ERA the last two seasons.
"There's a lot that I worked on. It's like a circle for me; it starts with physical and goes to mental," Lannan said. "It has to come full circle. I feel that I did a lot down there to improve my mechanics. That was one of the biggest issues, just getting to a comfortable position, and my confidence will come from there."
Lannan made his return to the majors on Sunday in less than celebratory fashion. He was okay, allowing two runs in five innings despite giving up seven hits. Fifty-nine of his 96 pitches went for strikes, a far lower clip than Lannan is capable of when he's at his best.
But for the Nationals, it was nice simply to see Lannan able to do solid work again.
"I don't know if it really said anything to me, because he's an established guy," pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "He's back to what I'm used to seeing."
He made a couple minor mechanical adjustments, beginning his delivery from a more crouched position that would hide the ball from hitters longer. The next tweaks were meant to help him drive the ball down in the zone again, and a couple weeks ago, things finally lined up: Lannan was staying on top of his sinker, letting it run and getting groundouts.
"It wasn't a physical rehab, but it definitely was a rehab for me to get back to the top of my game," Lannan said. "It was the best thing for me, and I'm glad it happened."
The days where Lannan has to be the rock of the staff are likely over; Strasburg has already shown in nine starts that he's capable of being the kind of shutdown pitcher Lannan is not. Jordan Zimmermann will be back in a matter of weeks, and Livan Hernandez continues to roll along. The Nationals have enough inventory behind those three that Lannan doesn't have to be the stopper anymore.
Scouts have always pegged him as a No. 4 starter on a good team, and said the Nationals will be set up well once Lannan drops to that point in the rotation.
Nobody expected him to need five weeks in the minors before he worked back to that point. But the Nationals are cautiously optimistic he can stay there.
"I know John's work ethic. I know that he cares," McCatty said. "I had no doubt about how he was going to go about it when he went down there, and that's what every professional athlete should do. To say I'm surprised, no, that's what you've got to do. He went down, got his work in, battled through it and threw the ball well."