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With chance to clinch, Nats again turn to Lannan

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With chance to clinch, Nats again turn to Lannan

"John's my guy. I like John. And John can pitch. He led our club last year in wins." -- Davey Johnson on John Lannan, March 26

When Davey Johnson made that pronouncement during the final week of spring training, announcing John Lannan would open the season as the Nationals' No. 5 starter, little did he or anyone else know how the next six months would unfold.

One week later, of course, Johnson informed Lannan he would be opening the season in Syracuse, not Washington, a surprise demotion that prompted the left-hander to request a trade.

Six months later, Lannan remains a National. After spending the majority of the season at Class AAA, he has been back in the big leagues since Sept. 1, reinserted into the rotation after Stephen Strasburg was shut down.

And now, he'll be asked to pitch the Nationals to the NL East title.

Unable to clinch the division over the weekend in St. Louis, the Nationals return home for their final series of the regular season, needing to beat the Phillies just once to set off a champagne celebration on South Capitol Street. And wouldn't you know the man Johnson will hand the ball to tonight is none other than John Lannan.

The 28-year-old lefty has already started (and won) some of the most important games of the Nationals' season. Summoned from Syracuse to pitch the second half of a July 21 doubleheader against a Braves team that had trimmed its deficit in the NL East to 1 12 games, he tossed seven strong innings to earn the victory and start a six-game Nationals winning streak.

Lannan returned two weeks later for another doubleheader, this time against the Marlins, and again notched a quality start en route to another win.

He has since made three more starts over the last three weeks, taking over Strasburg's rotation spot and tossing 5 23 scoreless innings against the Mets before then getting roughed up by the Dodgers in a no-decision.

The July win over the Braves was one of the Nationals' most important of the season, but last week's win in Philadelphia might have been the most important of Lannan's season. Tortured by the Phillies throughout his career, he marched into Citizens Bank Park and allowed two runs over 5 23 innings to improve to 4-0 and exorcise one of his biggest demons.

That game, more than any other, leaves the Nationals feeling good about their chances tonight with Lannan back on the mound against the Phillies.

"We have all the confidence in the world," said fellow lefty Ross Detwiler, who suffered yesterday's loss to the Cardinals. "What is he, 4-0? There you go. He threw against them last week and did really well. He got us a huge win after I lost the game, and he came back and did what he needed to do to get the win."

Lannan, who declined to be interviewed following yesterday's game, still faces an uncertain future. He's unlikely to be included on the Nationals' postseason roster, barring a late turn of events. And he might not be tendered a contract over the winter, left to sign with another club after spending all of his eight professional seasons in the Nationals organization.

None of that, though, matters to him right now. He's often talked about his ability to get through this difficult season by focusing solely on the task immediately before him, not worrying about what would be next and never assuming anything would be handed to him.

Well, tonight, Lannan will be handed the ball for the most important game of his life and potentially the most significant game in Nationals history.

Few could have foreseen things playing out like this. But there is a certain poetic symmetry to it all. With a chance to clinch their first-ever division title, the Nationals will turn not to Strasburg or Gio Gonzalez or Jordan Zimmerman or Edwin Jackson or Ross Detwiler. They'll turn to a familiar face who, as it turns out, has perhaps had the confidence of his manager all along.

As Johnson said way back on March 26: "John's my guy."

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Bryce Harper's injury untimely, but Nationals' offense is heating up

Bryce Harper's injury untimely, but Nationals' offense is heating up

Notes and observations from the Nats' 10-7 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday afternoon…

Harper's untimely injury: The Nationals have another injury to worry about as they close the regular season and prepare for the playoffs, as Bryce Harper hurt his left thumb on an awkward slide into third base in Sunday's win. Now the reigning MVP heads for X-rays on Monday, hoping he didn't seriously damage the same thumb he tore a ligament in back in 2014.

The Nationals did not seem too worried based on their postgame comments to reporters, but it certainly bears watching with the playoffs set to begin in just about a week-and-a-half. Obviously, they would like to have Harper available for their postseason run, and he just happened to be heating up before he got hurt. Harper injured himself on a triple. He drove in a run earlier in the game on a groundout, had two RBI on Saturday and three hits on Friday. Harper has six hits in his last four games after having just one in his previous nine.

If Harper has to play through thumb pain moving forward, keep in mind how his 2014 problem significantly affected his power. Harper posted a career-low slugging percentage of .423. He's already struggled mightily at times this season and doesn't need anything else making it harder for him to be himself at the plate. It's a tough time for him to get hurt, but they do have over a week to get him right before the NLDS begins.

Nats offense kicking into gear: Harper's recent contributions have been part of an overall offensive surge for the Nats. With 10 runs on Sunday, the Nats have scored 29 total in their last four games. That's after posting just eight in their previous four games before that. Entering their weekend series against the Pirates, the Nats had the fewest runs of any NL team in the month of September. Offense was starting to look like a real issue for the Nationals, right as they neared the finish line of the regular season, but recently that has not been the case.

Cole, Latos, Glover continue to struggle: While the Nationals close out the final week of their regular season schedule, they will be closely evaluating their bench and bullpen in particular as they determine their final group for the playoff roster. Some tough decisions will be made on both accounts, but several Nats relievers may be pitching themselves out of contention for final spots.

A.J. Cole had another so-so outing on Sunday with three earned runs allowed on three walks and a hit in 2 2/3 innings of work. He only lasted 2 2/3 because he was ejected for throwing behind Jung Ho Kang in the third inning. Cole has now allowed 12 earned runs in his last 14 2/3 innings. That's a very discouraging trend for a guy who just a few starts ago looked like a potential playoff bullpen option.

Cole's downturn occurred following an impressive start against the Mets, an eye-opening performance against the Nats' division rival. The same thing happened to Mat Latos, who like Cole was good against the Mets but has since fallen off. Latos was charged with two earned runs on three hits and a walk in Sunday's win. He gave up two runs in his previous appearance against the Marlins on Sept. 19. That's two rough outings in a row with little time left to make an impression.

Rookie Koda Glover gave up the Pirates' final run on a homer by Kang in the bottom of the seventh. It was a two-run bomb, but the other run was charged to Sean Burnett, who was removed after walking Josh Bell with one out. Glover also gave up a run on Friday against the Pirates and has now allowed seven runs in six innings across his last seven outings. It has been a troubling stretch for a guy who had a nice start to this season and until recently looked like a potential playoff option.

Revere's best game in a while: The Nationals had 14 hits on Sunday and three of them came from center fielder Ben Revere. It was his fifth game this season with at least three hits and his first since July 1. Since Trea Turner took over for him in center, playing time has been hard to come by for Revere, but lately he's been making the most of it. Sunday was Revere's fourth start in September and in those games he has six hits and four runs. He also added two steals in Sunday's win, his first multi-steal game since June 27.

[RELATED: Nationals took relatively smooth road to winning 2016 NL East]

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Nationals rally against Rivero, beat Pirates 10-7

Nationals rally against Rivero, beat Pirates 10-7

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The tag was clearly fake. What happened next was all too real for the NL East champion Washington Nationals: Bryce Harper got hurt and needs X-rays.

Harper injured his left thumb making an awkward slide to avoid a pretend tag by Pittsburgh third baseman Jung Ho Kang, and the teams later cleared the benches Sunday in Washington's 10-7 win.

Nationals manager Dusty Baker said Harper was "sore" and would have X-rays on Monday. The reigning NL MVP had surgery to repair a torn ligament in the same thumb in 2014.

Harper led off the third inning with a triple. As he neared third, Kang acted as if a throw was coming and feigned a tag.

Harper went down, was checked by a trainer and stayed in. He scored on Anthony Rendon's double and was replaced in the field in the bottom half by Chris Heisey.

Kang insisted he merely intended to keep Harper from scoring when right fielder Josh Bell's throw was way off line.

"First of all, I meant no harm," Kang said through a translator. "During the relay play, I tried to hold the runner on third base. That's all I tried to do."

The next time Kang came up, Nationals starter A.J. Cole threw a fastball behind him and was immediately ejected by plate umpire Jordan Baker as the benches emptied.

Cole said he was trying to pitch inside to Kang. Baker said the entire situation wasn't ideal for a team that is focusing on a playoff run.

"We don't want guys suspended," Baker said. "But you know, boys will be boys, and you've still got to defend your teammates."

Washington's Jayson Werth was in the middle of the skirmish. Pirates outfielder Sean Rodriguez was ejected.

"I was very surprised I was the only one ejected considering," Rodriguez said. "I got blamed for being the one that instigated, but you can watch the film yourself."

Werth had a pinch-hit, two-run homer and Heisey had a go-ahead single during a five-run burst in the eighth. The Nationals' rally came against former teammate Felipe Rivero (1-5).

Rivero had allowed just four earned runs in his previous 25 innings since being traded from Washington to the Pirates.

Kang hit a two-run homer off Koda Glover to give the Pirates the lead in the seventh.

Shawn Kelley (3-2) wound up with the win. Former Pirates closer Mark Melancon pitched a scoreless ninth for his 43rd save.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Pirates: C Francisco Cervelli did not play after taking a foul ball off his wrist Saturday. ... RHP Neftali Feliz (arm) threw off flat ground but is not yet ready for a return to the mound.

UP NEXT

Nationals: Tanner Roark (15-9 2.70 ERA) had his start pushed back one day after the Nationals clinched the NL East on Saturday night. He'll looking for his career-best 16th win as Washington hosts Arizona for a four-game series.

Pirates: Chad Kuhl (5-3, 3.73 ERA) will start as Pittsburgh begins a four-game series against the NL Central champion Chicago Cubs. Kuhl has allowed seven earned runs in 7 1/3 innings in his two previous starts against Chicago this season.