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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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Lobaton, others step up in Nats' 1st game without Wilson Ramos

Lobaton, others step up in Nats' 1st game without Wilson Ramos

If guys like Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon play to their capabilities, the Nationals could make do without Wilson Ramos this postseason, at least on offense.

But even those guys can't do it all by themselves. The much more likely scenario involves a collective effort, one in which contributions from all-around lift the Nationals as a team and help compensate for the loss of one of their best and most consistent players. Collective efforts like Tuesday night when both of Ramos' replacements - Jose Lobaton and Pedro Severino - chipped in on offense, Rendon provided the big swing and other bench players like Stephen Drew and Wilmer Difo made pivotal plays in their 4-2 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Lobaton called a strong game behind the dish, helping starter Max Scherzer adjust after allowing two runs in his first three innings to toss three scoreless after that. He then broke up Diamondbacks' starter Matt Koch's no-hitter in the sixth with a leadoff single. That ignited a four-run rally for the Nats, who took the lead and never relinquished it.

"I don't want to get a no-hitter," Lobaton said. "I got a good result and it was good for the team. We got a rally and we won."

"With [Ramos] going down for the year, that’s just heartbreaking," Scherzer said. "But Loby’s a guy that we need to step up and he’s the one who started off that inning."

Lobaton was replaced on the basepaths by Severino, who is faster than Lobaton, who happens to be dealing with a sore right ankle. Severino would later score after moving to third on walks drawn by Trea Turner and Difo. Severino came home on a sacrifice fly hit to left by Drew.

Lobaton and Severino will be a tag team partnership moving forward this season with Ramos out. They will need to spell each other and work together to try and recreate the production Ramos provided as a standout both at the plate and behind it.

On Tuesday, they pulled through.

"That's what they're going to have to do," manager Dusty Baker said. "That's what they're going to have to do to contribute."

Their night also involved a lot of communication once Severino replaced Lobaton. A veteran with more experience catching the Nationals' pitching staff, Lobaton advised Severino throughout the game about how to call it. That's something Ramos often does for Lobaton.

"That is good for a guy that is not playing every time. It's the same with me, I always talk to Wily about the pitchers and what they are doing," Lobaton said. "I try to communicate more, like what he's been doing and what he's working on. So, I try to do the same with Sevi. This is working in the game, this is not. It can be more easy for him when he goes out."

Severino scored the first run and later in the frame Rendon drove in three more on a homer to left field off Randall Delgado. Rendon was pleased to see the foundation laid ahead of him that inning.

"That’s a great example, first day, stepping up,” he said. "Definitely frustration [with Ramos' injury]. You never like to see a teammate get hurt… obviously he’s going to be missed. He’s a big part of this lineup. But we have a lot of good guys who can fill in. It’s going to be awesome to watch.”

The Nationals have five more games before the regular season is over. To capture a World Seires, they will need to win 11 more after that. It won't always be as smooth asTuesday night, but the Nationals demonstrated well to themselves what it will take to get by without their star catcher.

[RELATED: Dodgers set rotation for playoff series against Nationals]

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Anthony Rendon's homer lifts Nationals over Diamondbacks

Anthony Rendon's homer lifts Nationals over Diamondbacks

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 4-2 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday night at Nationals Park.

How it happened: With All-Star Wilson Ramos now out for the rest of the regular season and playoffs with a torn right ACL, the Nationals will need others to step up and compensate for his loss. On defense, it will be up to Jose Lobaton and Pedro Severino. Ramos is an excellent defensive catcher, but his two backups are perfectly capable behind the dish.

On offense is where Ramos' absence will particularly hurt and that was noted by manager Dusty Baker on Tuesday after his diagnosis was revealed. Others in their lineup will have to raise their games to fill the void.

Time will tell how much Ramos is missed, but Tuesday was a good start. The Nationals saw several players contribute to a sixth inning rally that led them to a 4-2 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Lobaton got them started with a single to right field, the first hit of the night against Arizona rookie Matt Koch, who was making his MLB debut. Stephen Drew later drove in a run with a sacrifice fly. And after that it was Anthony Rendon who gave the Nats the lead with a three-run homer to left field.

That gave the Nationals enough to hand Max Scherzer his 19th win of the season. Scherzer lasted six innings on 98 pitches before he was pulled for a pinch-hitter.

The Nationals bounced back from their blowout loss in the series opener on Monday night and have now won three of four.

What it means: The Nationals improved to 92-65 on the season with just five games remaining.

Scherzer overcomes rocky start: Scherzer was solid on Tuesday night with six innings and two runs allowed on six hits and two walks. But his night didn't start out too well, as Scherzer gave up a solo homer to Jean Segura on the first pitch of the game. He allowed another run on a Welington Castillo double in the top of the third. After that, though, Scherzer settled in to retired seven straight batters with six consecutive strikeouts. 

Scherzer finished with 10 strikeouts on the night to reach double digits for the 13th time this season and the 49th time in his career. He also got to 277 strikeouts on the season to set a new Nationals record, breaking his previous mark of 276 set just last year. Scherzer is the only active pitcher with at least two seasons of 275 strikeouts or more.

Rendon hits No. 19: Rendon's homer was his 19th of the season, two away from the career-high of 21 he set in 2014. It was also the 500th hit of his career. Rendon hasn't had the greatest month when it comes to getting on base, but he's driven plenty of runs in. With his three RBI on Tuesday, Rendon now has 22 for September, a career-high for a single month. He has 51 RBI in 64 games since the All-Star break.

Lobaton, Severino make an impact: Lobaton's hit to lead off the sixth and start their four-run rally was just a single, but was a positive sign for the Nats, who will need him to step up with Ramos out. Lobaton was replaced by Severino as a pinch-runner and Severino then came around to score on Drew's sacrifice fly. That duo may need to split a lot of playing time over the next few weeks and with Lobaton's sore right ankle, Severino could be replacing him on the basepaths late in close games quite often moving forward.

Up next: The Nationals play another 7:05 p.m. start on Wednesday night with lefty Gio Gonzalez (11-10, 4.51) set to face former Braves starter Shelby Miller (2-12, 6.47).

[RELATED: Ramos' ACL tear devastating news for him and Nats]

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