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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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Nats' Joe Ross to begin minor league rehab assignment on Sunday

Nats' Joe Ross to begin minor league rehab assignment on Sunday

Okay, let's try this again.

Nearly a month after Joe Ross' initial minor league rehab assignment was halted due to a setback in his recovery from right shoulder inflammation, the Nationals' starter will now go on another rehab stint beginning Sunday with the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs. He will face the Pawtucket Red Sox in Syracuse.

This is a major step for the Nats' right-hander, who hasn't appeared in a big league game since July 2. Ross threw two bullpen sessions this week, one on Tuesday in Baltimore and another on Thursday in Washington. It was an encouraging series of days for Ross, who last pitched in a game on July 30 with Syracuse. He also pitched for Syracuse on July 24.

Ross is now well on his way to returning, but whether he can build his innings up to come back as a starter is still hard to tell. The minor league regular season only runs through the first week of September, so it's still possible Ross will need to return to the Nats as a relief pitcher.

Manager Dusty Baker shared the latest on that situation before Saturday's game:

"I don't know. That's a question that we're trying to answer now. If not, then hopefully in the playoffs he can be on the team and help us out of the bullpen. Usually, you're only carrying three starters on the team anyways during the playoffs. If he was number four and whoever else or whatever, that makes for a better bullpen. I have hopes that he can at least make it back to that point," he said.

That is all, of course, pending this second minor league rehab stint goes well. Last time Ross felt discomfort and didn't have his velocity quite where he wanted it to be.

Ross starting for Syracuse may give some hints as to who will start for the Nationals on Sunday against the Rockies. Lucas Giolito was lined up to pitch Sunday for the Chiefs and already was a likely candidate to be called up to the Nats. Now that theory has even more legs to it.

[RELATED: Max Scherzer digs down deep to help Nats, shut up Orioles fans]

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A.J. Cole faces Rockies as Nats look for third straight win

A.J. Cole faces Rockies as Nats look for third straight win

Nats (75-53) at Rockies (60-68) at Nationals Park

It's a quick turnaround for the Nationals and Rockies, who pick back up for a 1:05 p.m. first pitch on Saturday afternoon. Rookie A.J. Cole gets the start following his seven-inning, four-run outing against the Orioles on Aug. 22, his 2016 season debut. Cole will once again see a tough lineup, this time with a bunch of lefties including Charlie Blackmon, Carlos Gonzalez and Gerardo Parra.

Pitching for Colorado will be Jorge De La Rosa (8-7, 5.07). The veteran lefty faced the Nats just two starts ago and gave up four runs in six innings at Coors Field.

Wilson Ramos is back in the Nats' lineup after missing two games. He's hitting sixth behind Anthony Rendon.

First pitch: 1:05 p.m.
TV: MASN2
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats - A.J. Cole vs. Rockies - Jorge De La Rosa

NATS

CF Trea Turner
LF Jayson Werth
2B Daniel Murphy
RF Bryce Harper
3B Anthony Rendon
C Wilson Ramos
1B Ryan Zimmerman
SS Danny Espinosa
RHP A.J. Cole

ROCKIES

CF Charlie Blackmon
2B D.J. LeMahieu
RF Carlos Gonzalez
3B Nolan Arenado
LF David Dahl
1B Gerardo Parra
C Nick Hundley
SS Daniel Descalso
LHP Jorge De La Rosa

CLICK HERE FOR LIVE STATS AND SCORES

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Gonzalez on earning career win No. 100 : 'I’m just happy it came'

Gonzalez on earning career win No. 100 : 'I’m just happy it came'

Gio Gonzalez isn’t the type to harp on his accomplishments. After quality outings, he typically deflects praise to his Nationals teammates in postgame interviews when asked to describe his personal performance.

But as much as he tends to downplay, earning his career 100th win in Friday's victory over the Colorado Rockies clearly meant something to him. 

“I’m just happy it came,” Gonzalez said. “I finally showed up and I’m happy I did it here with this organization. Oakland gave me an opportunity and Washington helped me continue that opportunity and I couldn’t be happier to do it with these colors and represent the Washington Nationals.”

The feat came after two no-decisions in his previous two starts, so the third time proved to be the charm. After the game, he had a gathering of family and friends waiting outside the Nats’ clubhouse to congratulate him, some holding gold “100” balloons and others wearing hats featuring the oft-used Twitter emoji of the same number.

“I'm sure it was [on his mind],” manager Dusty Baker said. “…He didn’t want to come out of this game. He was going to get it eventually and we needed it.”

The 30-year-old left hander accomplished the milestone thanks to six innings of two-run ball on just 85 pitches against the hard-hitting Rockies lineup. Gonzalez displayed a lot of what his skipper wanted to see from him: a low pitch count, avoiding the big inning and, as he did later in the game, deliver shutdown frames immediately after the Nats offense scores.

“He threw great tonight," added Bryce Harper. Kept a very good Rockies lineup off balance and did what he needed to do. Stuck with his approach and threw like Gio knows how. Huge for him, that hundredth win. Couldn't be happier for him and his family.”

Historic achievement aside, Gonzalez has quietly turned his season around after a rough patch. In his last nine outings, he’s 5-1 with a 3.20 ERA over 50 2/3 innings. His resurgence couldn’t have come at a better time, as he’s charged with stabilizing the back-end of a rotation that’s in flux due to injuries to Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross.

“That's the key to his success,” Baker said. “Not getting runners on base or not walking people and he had a very good game tonight, excellent game. His last couple games, few games have been good. I'm just glad we were able to get him his 100th victory.”