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Lannan rises to the occasion

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Lannan rises to the occasion

For more than four seasons, he would take the mound every fifth day for the Nationals, the most reliable member of a typically unreliable starting rotation. He pitched well most nights, didn't pitch well every once in a while, and compiled stats that suggested he was worthy of a spot at the back end of a big-league rotation.

But through it all, through 128 starts with the Nationals from 2007-11, John Lannan never once pitched in a truly significant baseball game.

"I mean, I've never been on a first-place team," he said. "And I've never been in a game where it really meant something."

So when the opportunity finally presented itself Saturday night, Lannan decided he might as well make the most of it.

"That's all I wanted to do: Come in, and in any way I could help the team," he said.

Lannan did more than just help his team. With seven sparkling innings against the Braves, the left-hander carried his team to a much-needed, 5-2 victory that snapped a three-game losing streak, prevented Atlanta from sweeping a doubleheader and prevented the Nationals' ever-shrinking lead from dropping to 12-game and causing some actual panic on South Capitol Street.

No, instead of waking up Sunday morning and facing an all-or-nothing showdown for first place in the NL East, the Nationals will remain 2 12 games up on the Braves, eased by the knowledge they'll continue to hold the same top spot they've held in the division for two full months now.

"I think most of the guys in this locker room felt like it was a must-win tonight," closer Tyler Clippard said. "We needed to get one. If they took three from us right away, it would have been a pretty big blow."

It wasn't surprising that the Nationals righted themselves behind a dominant performance from a member of the majors' best rotation. It was, however, surprising that the pitcher who did it hadn't been a member of that rotation the previous 92 games ... and won't be a member of that rotation for Game No. 94.

Exiled to Syracuse on the final day of spring training despite his tenure in the organization and his 5 million salary, Lannan spent the last 3 12 months toiling away as a Class AAA pitcher, putting up less-than-spectacular numbers (6-9, 4.89 ERA) and not getting a chance to be a part of the first true pennant race in D.C. in three generations.

The Nationals, though, told Lannan all along they would need his services at some point, and the opportunity arose with this day-night doubleheader. Taking advantage of a new MLB rule that allows teams to add a 26th player only for twinbills, Lannan was recalled for one day and handed the ball for Saturday's nightcap.

"I never really thought about it. I just went down there and knew I needed to do my work," said Lannan, who did formally request a trade after his demotion. "The first couple starts were rough, but this day didn't really cross my mind until I kind of saw it line up and I realized: 'Hey, I might have a shot to start that game.'"

He watched Game 1 of the doubleheader from the clubhouse, as his teammates failed to score a run off Ben Sheets or two Braves relievers during a frustrating, 4-0 loss that came mere hours after they had blown a nine-run lead and suffered a soul-crushing, 11-10 loss late Friday night.

Now, Lannan was being given the ball for arguably the most important game of the Nationals' season to date. And the eight guys who took the field with him were confident in the 27-year-old's ability to rise to the occasion.

"I mean, I honestly couldn't stop smiling when I saw him on the mound," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "I knew he was hungry for it."

Perhaps too hungry, because all the emotion of the moment seemed to get the best of Lannan during a troublesome first inning in which the Braves scored two runs and had five batters reach base.

Once he overcame that hiccup, though, Lannan settled in and got down to business. He started throwing more strikes (47 of his last 63 pitches), started inducing more groundballs (11 of his last 18 outs) and started getting stronger and stronger as each inning passed.

And thanks to some well-executed at-bats in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings, the Nationals plated the three runs they needed to leave Lannan in line for the win.

"He definitely did a good job to keep us in the game, and we scored a couple runs for him," said Roger Bernadina, whose RBI single (his fifth hit of the day) drove in the go-ahead run.

As he summoned his bullpen to pitch the night's final two innings, manager Davey Johnson put his arms on Lannan's shoulders and told the lefty: "Love ya, man."

It was a strikingly different conversation than the last one the two had in that dugout, the one on April 3 in which Johnson informed the pitcher he was being optioned to the minors.

"It was the toughest thing I had to do this year, to tell him we were going to option him out," Johnson said. "But, you know, when I talked to him 3-4 days ago and said he was coming up, I said: 'I'm glad to be able to get you back here, at least for one game.' He said: 'I can't wait to help the ballclub.' That was his approach. I said: 'I'm sure you will.' Boy, what a great story."

A story whose conclusion remains unknown. Lannan will be back on a flight Sunday morning to Syracuse, a minor leaguer once again.

But he feels reasonable sure he'll return before this season is over, and Johnson all but said as much after Saturday's game, suggesting Lannan will be recalled in September to take the rotation spot that will open after Stephen Strasburg is shut down.

The way things are going, it seems a given Lannan will be asked to pitch even bigger games for the pennant-chasing Nationals than he did on Saturday.

But before that happens, he'll have to return to watching from afar, rooting for his teammates from hundreds of miles and one giant step down in competition, biding his time until the opportunity arises again.

"I've been through a lot with these guys, and I do feel part of it," he said. "But the game goes on. If I'm here or not, these guys are still going to bust their butts. I know they're thinking about me, and I'm thinking about them. And hopefully, we can play together in September."

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Nats' bullpen, defense continue to cause problems, lead to losses

Nats' bullpen, defense continue to cause problems, lead to losses

Starter A.J. Cole made it 5 2/3 innings on Saturday afternoon, which is pretty good considering that's how much Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg combined to pitch against the Rockies less than two weeks ago. Gio Gonzalez also only made it three innings in that series due to a rain delay.

And in the time since, the Nats' bullpen has been battered around by all sorts of elements including injuries and short outings from starters. The Nationals' next off-day on Thursday, Sept. 1 can't come soon enough to put them out of their current 20 games in 20 days misery.

Cole's outing, by all accounts, could have been a lot worse. But unfortunately for the Nationals, Saturday's game went to extra innings, forcing manager Dusty Baker to do some things he wouldn't normally prefer to do. Like, use the newly acquired Marc Rzepczynski for 2 1/3 innings. Or, to go to Mark Melancon for the third straight game. Or, to leave Yusmeiro Petit on the mound in the 11th even when it was clear he just didn't have it.

For Petit, in particular, Baker felt like he had no other choice, even after the right-hander served up a two-run homer to Charlie Blackmon.

"We felt badly for Yusmeiro because we had to leave him in there, he was our last pitcher we didn't have [Koda] Glover and we were trying to stay away from [Mark] Melancon because that was his third day in a row and we didn't have [Shawn] Kelley. We were down to our last player, we had no more players on the bench and that was our last player, I don't know who was going to pitch if he didn't get out of that inning. He took one for the team so to speak," Baker said.

Petit's inning got off on a sour note with an error by Anthony Rendon at third base. It was one of two errors committed by the Nationals on Saturday. One was by Rzepczynski in the seventh and that one helped lead to a run. Rzepczynski also messed up fielding a bunt in the ninth. Cole also allowed a run on a wild pitch during an intentional walk.

It was a rough day for the Nats, who were plagued by uncharacteristic mistakes. That has been a theme lately and the Nationals hope it ends soon.

“We address it daily, but you cant harp on it. Like I said the other day these things go in streaks," Baker said. "Tony is sure handed over there. We haven’t seen Rzepczynski. He just threw that ball over the head. They bunted on us twice a couple of times and got hits on us. We just have to continue to work.”

The Nats have now made 14 errors in their last nine games. It's been bizarre to watch and it has some at a loss for words.

“Can’t call it. I don’t know. One of those things," left fielder Jayson Werth said.

[RELATED: Harper explains ejection vs. Rockies: 'It's not a strike']

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Before ejection, Bryce Harper continued recent hot streak vs. Rockies

Before ejection, Bryce Harper continued recent hot streak vs. Rockies

Before Bryce Harper earned his eight career ejection following a strikeout in the 10th inning, the Nats right fielder actually had a pretty good game at the plate. He landed an RBI double, walked and scored a run. He has now reached base in all 14 games since he returned from nursing a stiff neck.

The double was a familiar sight for Harper. He dropped it into the left field corner at Nationals Park, just as he did his triple the night before and just as he did his double the night before that. Three straight games with extra-base hits to the opposite field. That's not bad.

That, in fact, is something manager Dusty Baker has been waiting to see for quite some time.

“That’s a good sign, that’s an excellent sign," Baker said. "When he’s hitting that ball to left field and not pulling everything or rolling over means staying on the ball and he’s staying through the zone. That’s a very good sign. He’s been heating up. We know the best is yet to come.”

In the 14 games since he returned, Harper is 21-for-54 (.389) with six doubles, 16 RBI and 11 runs. This is the best Harper has played in months and he's showing no signs of slowing down.

"I feel good. I think the balls are falling where they should," the Nats right fielder said. "It's nice to go into a game and score some runs and have some fun."

In these 14 games, Harper has raised his season average from .233 all the way to .254. It's almost certainly too late for him to repeat as NL MVP, but he's heating up at a good time with September right around the corner and the playoffs, if the Nats keep their current pace, right after that.

[RELATED: Harper explains ejection vs. Rockies: 'It's not a strike']

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Bryce Harper explains 10th inning ejection vs. Rockies: 'It's not a strike'

Bryce Harper explains 10th inning ejection vs. Rockies: 'It's not a strike'

Bryce Harper is not one to back down when it comes to arguments with umpires, even after he's been ejected from a game and has time to cool down and collect his thoughts.

So, it should probably come as no surprise that on Saturday after he was tossed in the 10th inning of the Nats' loss to the Colorado Rockies, Harper referred to home plate umpire Mark Winters' called strike three as a "mistake." 

Here is Harper, in detail, on the call that led to him throwing his helmet to the ground and confronting Winters, who immediately sent him to the showers:

"You're in a game like that, 4-4 in the 10th, you get to a 2-2 count. He throws a pitch off the plate which they said was a strike, which was a ball. I was reading it all the way in. If you look at the tape, I was looking down at the ball the whole way into the glove and it was just, you know, it was off the plate. I could possibly see one more pitch and maybe hit a homer or a double or walk. I could even strike out. But I just wanted to see that last pitch and I never got there. It just shouldn't happen. Just bad [call] there. It's not a strike," he said.

"You don't want an umpire to make a mistake in that big of a situation. That's just not good. I wanted to see that last pitch. We could have possibly not played the 11th or the 12th or whatever. I mean, getting on base with [Anthony] Rendon behind me would have been huge as well, possibly could have stolen second, a ball hit to the ride side and you never know."

On if Harper regretted his actions, he did concede it was not a good time to be tossed, given the game was tied and the Nats had a chance to beat the Rockies.

"I know we had a short bench. I think going into it you don't ever want to get ejected," he said.

Manager Dusty Baker didn't offer a harsh assessment to Harper's ejection. He basically described it as just part of the game.

"Everybody blows up from time to time," he said. "These things happen. Especially it happens this time of year tempers are short. It’s hot, played a lot of games, been around the same people for a long period of time. This is the time of year when tempers do flare up.”

Outfielder Jayson Werth was brief in his comments on Harper. But did note how this isn't the first time for the reigning MVP. Harper has now been ejected from eight games in his career.

"I’ve been kicked out of one game my whole career. Bryce, on the other hand, has been kicked out of multiple," he said.

[RELATED: Harper ejected after arguing balls and strikes]

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