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The differences between the John Lannan that led the Nationals pitching staff in 2008 and 2009 and the John Lannan that took the mound for them on Friday night were subtle at best. The left-hander stands a little more croughed on the mound now, and instead of hair buzzed close to his head, Lannan now sports a floppy head of hair that peeks out from under his cap.
Other than that? Lannan looked like the same pitcher. He was drilling his fastball through the strike zone, nipping the corners of the plate with his curveball and changeup, which is finally looking like an effective weapon against lefties. He worked quick, throwing first-pitch strikes with his sinker and inducing early groundouts.
It's the formula he used to go from Single-A Potomac to the team's de facto ace in little over a year, and Lannan replicated it more effectively on Friday night than at almost any other point this year.
He allowed two runs in seven innings, helping the Nationals break a five-game losing streak in a 4-2 win over the Diamondbacks. Lannan struck out five batters, tying his season high, and got 11 groundouts in his 103 pitches. And as important as anything else he did on Friday night, Lannan proved again how much of a difference he can make in the Nationals' rotation.
Jim Riggleman meets with the media following the Nats' 4-2 win over Arizona
After six weeks at Double-A Harrisburg, Lannan again looks like the pitcher the Nationals have come to rely on over the last two years. He's 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA in three starts since returning from the minors, and has gone deeper into the game each time.
"I just feel good out there," Lannan said. "I'm confident in my stuff. I spent time down there trying to get my two-seam (fastball) back and just get in a good position where I was hiding the ball more, being more deceptive. And I've been doing a pretty good job of that."
For the last two years, when the Nationals needed to end a losing streak, Lannan was the one they turned to. He's started on Opening Day for them the last two years, and he was expected to anchor their rotation until Stephen Strasburg arrived in June.
When Strasburg did, Lannan wasn't ready to be a complementary pitcher. He was in a tailspin, walking more batters than he ever had and losing his ability to get ground balls.
The adjustments Lannan made with Harrisburg pitching coach Randy Tomlin, his former coach at Potomac, seem to have worked.
"I think if you look at every pitcher, they've gone through some things in their career where they go up and down," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "More importantly for him, I think he kind of got his confidence back up. Not to say he wasn't confident in himself, but when you're going through some struggles, something like this can kind of springboard you back to what you were before. He looked really good tonight, so it was good for us."
And if he can resemble the pitcher he's been the last two years, think of the difference it makes for Washington's rotation. The Nationals are no longer counting on Lannan to be their stopper; they have Strasburg for that now. Livan Hernandez has also fortified the rotation, and Jordan Zimmermann will be back soon enough. Yunesky Maya, Jason Marquis, Scott Olsen, Ross Detwiler or even Chien-Ming Wang could factor somewhere into the picture, making it so Lannan can finally assume the role everyone has always said he'd have to take for the Nationals to be a good team: an efficient, reliable No. 4 starter.
The Nationals, at this point, still need more from Lannan than that. But he showed again on Friday night that he's still capable of holding up his end of the bargain.
"When he's nasty and when he's throwing good, he can hit those corners and keep the ball down," catcher Wil Nieves said. "His ball today was running real good. The sinker was working. He was like the Lannan (of the past). The last time I caught him, he was good. Today, he looked better."