John Lannan could have chosen from a variety of reasons why he lost to the Florida Marlins on Friday night. He was feeling under the weather, finally victimized by a late-summer cold bug making the rounds of the Washington clubhouse. He was facing a Florida lineup stacked with tough right-handed hitters. He fell behind early and couldn't recover, failing to win his sixth decision in seven outings.
In truth, the Nationals' 3-1 loss to the Marlins was less about how Lannan pitched - which was decent enough to win - and more about how the Washington offense struggled against Florida rookie right-hander Alex Sanabia. The Nationals have dropped three straight games.
Sanabia (4-2) allowed only three hits in 6 1/3 shutout innings, improving to 2-1 in three starts against the Nationals this season. When he departed after walking Nyjer Morgan with two down in the seventh, Washington's only offense against him consisted of Morgan's two-out single in the second, a leadoff double by Michael Morse in the fifth and Ryan Zimmerman's infield single in the seventh.
"It's just one of those things where (Sanabia) kind of keeps the ball off the barrel of the bat a little bit. He's a pitcher. ... It's a little frustrating because (he's) not overpowering," Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said. "He just wouldn't let us string anything together. He just kept putting it up toward the handle and toward the end of the bat instead of on the meat of the bat."
Lannan (7-7) was almost as effective, though he was pitching from behind after spotting the Marlins a 2-0 lead in the first on Dan Uggla's RBI single and a Wes Helms sacrifice fly. The lefty got into trouble right away, allowing a leadoff seeing-eye single through the hole between short and third to leadoff hitter Emilio Bonifacio and walking Hanley Ramirez with one out.
"They're really aggressive. They can ambush you at any time, especially Ramirez and Uggla," said Lannan. "You always got to keep that in the back of your head. You can't groove any. They really can hit. I was just trying to keep the ball down, move from in to out, and I did a pretty good job of that after the first inning."
After the first inning, Lannan settled down. Even in the third inning, when he issued one-out walks to Uggla and Helms, he didn't get rattled. A visit to the mound from pitching coach Steve McCatty settled him down and Lannan heeded McCatty's make-your-pitch advice, getting a nifty inning-ending double play started by shortstop Ian Desmond.
"I just kind of slowed things down a little. I was a little pumped up in the first couple of innings, like always. The ball was up a little bit so they were able to put the bat on the ball. I just told myself to kind of slow it down a little bit, keep the ball down and that's what I did," Lannan explained.
Lannan's final line - 6 2/3 innings pitched, three runs allowed on seven hits, three walks and six strikeouts - looked a lot like winning efforts in his binge of five wins in six starts. Only this time, for the first time this season, his offense failed to score him a run.
"John did a good job. ... He wasn't 100 percent, but he really gutted it out and went deep into the game," Riggleman said.
With Lannan at the plate in the second, the Nationals ran themselves out of a chance, with Morgan getting caught stealing for the inning's final out by catcher Brad Davis, who later homered off Lannan in the seventh.
Davis said throwing out Morgan - who steamrolled Marlins catcher Brett Hayes at the plate in Miami last week, causing a season-ending separated shoulder, and incited a benches-clearing brawl by charging the mound after Florida's Chris Volstad threw behind him - was more satisfying than his home run.
"It was the wrong time to steal, and I think he kind of did it in spite of us," Davis said. "With all that happened, I think he kind of wants to put it to us a little bit, which is understandable. I would, too."
Riggleman insisted he had no trouble with Morgan stealing in that situation, even though the move meant Lannan led off the following inning.
"Nyjer, he's hitting eighth there, but that's his game. I can't ask him to hit eighth, but don't run. I really thought he would get that base. The pitcher wasn't quick to the plate but the catcher made a great throw. He got him. That's Nyjer's game; I can't take that away from him."
That was the last runner the Nationals had until Morse's leadoff double in the fifth. Lannan drew a two-out walk, but the inning ended when leadoff hitter Danny Espinosa flew out to the warning track in right center.
"I thought I got that ball pretty well," Espinosa said. "I thought I took a good swing at it. Maybe I didn't get it as good as I thought."
Jose Veras relieved Sanabia with two down in the seventh and struck out pinch hitter Willie Harris. Washington rallied in the eighth against Leo Nunez, but was victimized by an unfortunate bounce when Adam Dunn's drive to the gap in left-center bounced into the bullpen for a ground-rule double, with Ryan Zimmerman, who had singled, being forced to hold at third. Roger Bernadina followed with an RBI single to left to ruin Florida's shutout bid, chasing Nunez. Morse then flew to center on the first pitch from Clay Hensley, who stayed in to get the final three outs for his first career save.