John Lannan again had his bags packed even before he took the mound at Nationals Park on Friday afternoon.
Once an integral part of the Nationals' rotation, this season has been the most frustrating of Lannan's career with almost all of it spent pitching for Triple-A Syracuse. The 27-year-old left-hander makes a nice $5 million salary there and it's only about a five-hour drive from his native Long Beach, New York. But it's not the big leagues so upstate New York might as well be the moon.
Lannan returned for his second spot start of the season, holding the Miami Marlins to three runs in six innings during an eventual 7-4 Washington victory in Game 1 of a doubleheader. But he was again optioned afterwards to Syracuse, where he will stay until either another injury hits the Nats' rotation or Stephen Strasburg is finally shut down for the season, as expected.
Until then this is Lannan's fate. He wasn't as sharp as his first spot start on July 21 against Atlanta when he went seven innings and allowed two runs during another doubleheader, but got the job done anyway.
This time "it was a little less weird," Lannan said. "I wish I could stay up here, but I know the deal. Got to go back down there and keep on working."
The second game Friday didn't go as well. Starter Gio Gonzalez struck out 10 batters, but gave up five singles in the sixth inning. Miami starter Josh Johnson ran into no such trouble in 8 2/3 innings of five-hit ball as his team earned a 5-2 win and a doubleheader split. That dropped Washington's lead in the National League East to two games after second-place Atlanta (61-45) beat Houston. The Nats are now 63-43.
Against the Marlins in Game 1, Lannan escaped a bases-loaded jam in the first inning with just one run in and only gave up four hits total. However, he also walked five batters and fell apart in the seventh inning with two walks, a double and a wild pitch before being pulled from the game without recording an out in that frame.
"I got to go down there and pitch to contact. That's what I've done my whole career," Lannan said. "I had a tough one in Triple-A last time. Pitched to contact and got a little hurt. But you just got to keep on doing it and sometimes you'll have a good one and sometimes you'll have a bad one. But you got to give yourself a chance."
As Lannan walked from the mound after manager Davey Johnson made the pitching change he received a warm ovation from the fans. This is a player, after all, who has twice started Opening Day for the organization during bitter times. Now that the Nats are in first place he is just happy to contribute any way he can.
"I thought [Lannan] ran out of gas a little bit," Johnson said. "I didn't get to him quite in time. But he was a big boost for us. He did a heck of a job."
His teammates gave him plenty of support, too. Adam LaRoche was 3-for-4 with a home run, three RBI and reached base four times. Ryan Zimmerman doubled twice and walked twice. Jayson Werth singled and walked three times. Mark DeRosa had a two-run seeing-eye single in the first inning. The Marlins even helped by walking in a run in the fourth inning, by which time Washington led 7-1.
Miami scored twice in the seventh inning to at least make a game of it. Lannan wild-pitched home a run, was pulled mid-batter and then reliever Ryan Mattheus allowed an inherited runner to score on an infield hit to third base. Then reliever Drew Storen gave up a hit and two walks in the eighth inning. He struck out a batter before being pulled in the middle of the next at-bat. That left it to Michael Gonzalez, who struck out Bryan Petersen to end the threat.
In the ninth, the first two batters reached against Michael Gonzalez and Johnson had to turn to closer Tyler Clippard - not what he was looking for in a game once well in hand. He gave up a run-scoring grounder before retiring the next two batters to earn his 22nd save.
That game lasted 3:26 and in the thick, humid air players were soaked to the bone with sweat by the middle innings. Afterwards, they had about 30 minutes to change into new uniforms, bolt some food and take the field again for a rare twi-night doubleheader. That likely helped both Gonzalez and Johnson. Miami had just two runners reach base through the first five innings of Game 2 and neither reached scoring position.
Washington took a 1-0 lead on Ryan Zimmerman's first-inning sacrifice fly, but Johnson retired 12 in a row. The Nats couldn't capitalize on two hits in the fifth inning and had only one runner reach base in the next three before scoring a single run in the ninth. Johnson was pulled one out shy of a complete game.
"The first part was pretty good, the second part no good," LaRoche said after the Game 2 loss. "We've faced [Johnson] a lot and we've got to him a few times. But when he's on it's tough. So when you look back on the day not a ton of good pitches to hit. Throws hard. Pounds the zone. Three good pitches and we never really got anything going."