Nats give Lannan support, rout Braves
Five extra-base hits back left-hander's six strong innings
ATLANTA -- Nationals manager Manny Acta knows what he's about to get when John Lannan toes the rubber every five days: six strong innings, a poised, ever-maturing presence on the mound and, unfortunately, minimal run support.
On Saturday night, the Majors' most futile offense produced plenty.
On the strength of the Nationals' five extra-base hits, Lannan cruised to an 8-2 win over the Braves, marking only the second time this season that the 23-year-old lefty has won back-to-back starts.
"The bats are coming alive, and it's great to see," said Lannan, who has received the lowest run support -- 2.72 runs per start -- among qualifying starters in the Majors this season.
And although he wouldn't admit it, Lannan had to be staring at the scoreboard in disbelief.
"The kid has been pitching pretty much without run support, and today, the guys went out there and swung the bats and got some right off the bat," Acta said. "But you've got to give him credit -- he gave us a chance to score some runs and have a lead."
And it was made possible because Washington's slumbering offense is finally showing glimpses of its potential, albeit three months later than originally desired. The Nationals pounded out 14 hits Saturday, three more than they did in a 7-6 loss to the Braves on Friday night.
"It's encouraging the last two nights what we've done at the plate, especially against guys like [Tim] Hudson and [Jair] Jurrjens," said Acta, whose team snapped a six-game road losing streak. "Obviously, we've still got a ways to go, but I like what I see."
When searching for an explanation for the Nationals' shift in psyche and performance, don't look to Lannan, whose starts have been steady and consistent, the antithesis of the Nationals' season.
More impressive than either his command or movement on Saturday night was his resolve, tested in the fourth and fifth innings, when it seemed the game could easily be broken open. Instead, with the help of his defense, Lannan wriggled out of two bases-loaded jams.
Center fielder Willie Harris, who also went 3-for-5 at the plate, chased down a hard two-out liner from Greg Norton onto the warning track in left-center field to end the threat in the fourth. And in the fifth, after Chipper Jones singled through the right side of the infield to score a run, Lannan got Brian McCann to sharply line out to right field to end the inning.
It appeared Lannan was going to sneak out of that fifth inning unscathed when right fielder Austin Kearns attempted to throw out Jurrjens, who hesitated while rounding third base. But Kearns was charged with an error as his strong throw slipped between the legs of catcher Johnny Estrada, creating the lone blemish on Lannan's pitching line. He gave up the one run on seven hits, striking out four and walking three.
"He has the knack to make pitches when he has to, despite his age," Acta said. "... It's a good asset to have, especially when you're that young. It says a lot about him."
Lannan said he struggled with both his two- and four-seam fastballs, which were riding in on right-handed hitters. Usually, he has a tailing action with all of his pitches, which makes right-handed hitters extend over the plate and hit weak pop flies.
"If you make a mechanical adjustment during the game, that's not what you're supposed to do, so I just tried to go out there and deal with it," said Lannan, who has now pitched at least six innings in eight of his past nine starts.
Lannan said he didn't feel comfortable until the sixth inning. But by then, his pitch count had risen over 100, and Acta couldn't take a chance with only a 3-1 lead.
The Nationals scored three runs in the third inning off Jurrjens, who entered Saturday's start 5-1 with a 2.83 ERA at Turner Field this season. Despite leading all rookies with nine wins, Jurrjens never quite found his form Saturday, allowing five runs on eight hits in 6 1/3 innings.
When the Braves scored a run in the fifth, the Nationals responded with a two-run seventh that pushed their lead back out to 5-1. They tacked on three more in the eighth off Royce Ring, who has been one of the Braves' best options out of the bullpen this season.
It all made the night that much more relaxing for Lannan, who hasn't had the comfort of sitting on a big lead this season.
"To go out there tonight and get those clutch hits like we did, I know it relaxed him a lot, more room for error for him," said Harris, who had his first three-hit game of the season Saturday. "He's been pitching great all year, and you've got to expect that from him."
With the win, Washington now has a chance to capture its first series since taking two of three from the Orioles on June 27-29. Entering this weekend's three-game set against the Braves, the Nationals had dropped four consecutive series.
Ryan Lavner is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.