By now, you’d think, baseball pundits would stop talking about how John Lannan has “arrived,” and finally admit that the lefty is actually a veteran — and with enough command of the strike zone (and his own pitches) to be seen as a savvy and wily hurler who can provide key victories in key situations. In that sense, at least, what Lannan did with Seattle hitters on Wednesday is not a surprise: Lannan tamed the Seattle line-up into the 6th inning, giving his teammates (and bullpen stalwarts Henry Rodriguez, Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard and saves-ace Drew Storen) just enough breathing room to lock down a 2-1 victory and bring the Nationals back to .500 at 37-37.
Lannan (now 5-5 with a plunging ERA), was the key to the win, as was the Nationals’ bullpen, which MLB Network commentator Ron Gant told viewers was “electric.” He’s not the only one who noticed. The Nationals, 9-1 in their last ten, are the talk of baseball, though not only because of the Tuesday heroics of Wilson Ramos. The Nats are now seen as more than just a team with a few accidental wins. They’re young, tough, fast and . . . winners.
The Anacostia Nine has one of the best bullpens in the game, and an up-the-middle defense that is strong enough to spur commenters to wonder whether, in fact, the sky is the limit. And it’s no longer news that the Nationals, recipients of a Seattle error on Wednesday (that made the difference in the game), can take advantage of opponents’ miscues and hold on to win the games that, in reality, they shouldn’t. Wednesday was a case in point: Eric Bedard struck out ten Nationals, and it didn’t matter.
“We play good defense and we pitch well,” third sacker Ryan Zimmerman told reporters following Thursday’s 2-1 win. “When you can do that, you have a chance to win the game. If you are within a run or two late in the game, you can always do something . . . We get that now. We understand defense and pitching are most important part of the game, and we have done very well at that this year.”
So, it seems, Mike Rizzo was right. By building a team that is focused on defense, and a pitching staff that can shut down opponents, the Nationals have become a dangerous squad, and one not many others want to play. In many ways, they reflect the reputation of John Lannan: once underestimated, they’re now taken seriously. And that, more than reaching .500, is what’s important.
First In War, First in Peace and Last Ahead of the Mets in the N.L. East: Ironically, the rise of the Nationals has not come at the expense of other N.L. East competitors. The fall of the once mighty Marlins has been fueled by the Angels, Rays, Phillies and D-Backs, a gut-clenching crisis that has resulted in the appointment of a new manager and questions about the value of star shortstop Hanley Ramirez. Can Hanley recover? Should Hanley be benched? Should Hanley be traded? Is Hanley as good as we all think he is? Important questions for Marlins fans, no less so than for the franchise: who are moving into new digs next season with their star player hitting somewhere south of .220 . . .
Oddly, the same questions are being asked in New York of Jose Reyes, though for different reasons. Unlike Ramirez, Reyes is one of the few bright spots in the Madoff line-up — a return to form of one of the best players in the game. Reyes is leading the league in runs, hits and triples — and stands atop the N.L. in batting average. Speaking of “electric,” this guy is it. But Reyes has a big payday coming, and the Mets might not be willing to pony up the money it will take to keep him. Then too, even with Reyes, the Mets have little show for the money they’ve spent. While they’re not the Fish, at 36-38 they’re not the Nationals either. Jason Bay has been a flop, the team is beset by injuries, their pitching staff is just so-so (at best) and their premium reliever just blew two saves in a row. Our bet? Both Ramirez and Reyes will be gone at the trade deadline, as Florida and New York wave the white flag . . .