The story of the day is obviously the Nats clinching the NL East title, cementing a fantastic turnaround season for the traditionally moribund franchise. This is a great achievement for a team that very few pundits gave a shot at competing for a playoff spot, with even the most ardent fans thinking that 2012 would be a great stepping stone for 2013 and beyond. The team surprised us all with fantastic pitching all year (the pitching staff is in the top 5 in most statistical categories league-wide) and breakout offense performances from Ian Desmond and Bryce Harper. The team boasts a lineup where batters 1-7 all have 20+ homer seasons on their resumes and have to be seen as a tough out by any eventual playoff opponent.
We were lucky enough to be in the stadium last night to see the clinch. I can honestly say I’ve never seen the crowd as pumped up and vocal at any other time that I’ve been present at the stadium; not at the 2009 home stadium opener, not at the first game in RFK, not during the Yankees series over the years. The crowd regularly came to its feet to cheer the team in critical situations, was loud and vocal from the first pitch, and (thanks to the proliferance of smart phones) knew the moment that the Atlanta loss was final. The moment came just after the Nats got the last out of the top of the 9th, making for a very odd scene where the team was about to lose a game but was giving high-fives in the dugout ahead of their last at bat.
John Lannan took the loss, going 5 relatively mediocre innings and surviving 9 baserunners (3 by walk) to give up 2 earned runs on 6 hits. Lannan was all over the plate; 80 pitches but only 42 for strikes and was lucky not to have given up more runs. He got three double plays in his 5 innings, including a nifty first-to-home play from Adam LaRoche to get out of a bases loaded jam in the 4th. It was an inauspicious final appearance from Lannan, who finishes the season with a 4-1 record, a 4.13 ERA and a slightly-worse-than average 97 ERA+ in 6 starts (2 spot starts during the season and 4 starts in September replacing Stephen Strasburg in the rotation). The loss is slightly unfair to Lannan; the real story on the night was the offense’s inability to touch Kyle Kendrick, whom they had battered just 4 days ago in Philadelphia, allowing him to go 7 shutout innings and only allow 4 hits. The team was 0-8 with runners in scoring position, and had several crucial called-3rd strike K’s in situations that called for clutch hitting.
The team didn’t end up needing Craig Stammen’s amazing stint; 2 innings, 6 strikeouts. Stammen has really surprised me; I never thought he’d go from 4-A starter to shutdown middle reliever in just a season. But he is an excellent weapon for this team and I hope he continues his dominance into the post-season.
Where does Lannan go from here? Clearly he’s not in the Nationals plans; he’s arbitration eligible and due to get a raise from his 2012 salary of $5M, meaning he’s a non-tender candidate since the team would rather get a Mike Rizzo preferred arm (i.e., a power pitcher, a high K/9 guy instead of a finesse lefty like Lannan). I could see him getting cut loose and finding a one or two year deal for an AAV of $4M/year (maybe even more; remember the Nats signed Jason Marquis to a 2yr $15M deal after a series of comparable seasons earlier in his career). Lannan is an effective 4th or 5th starter on most teams and likely would excel in an NL pitcher’s park like Los Angeles, San Diego or San Francisco. There will absolutely be teams looking for guys like Lannan on the FA market and he’d likely be a great fit for a team looking for Starter help (off the top of my head; Kansas City, Chicago Cubs, Cleveland and Minnesota).
Washington isn’t going to get to 100 wins like I predicted in August (they’ve sputtered in September, going just 16-12 after two great months preceeding it), but 97 or 98 should be good enough for Best in Baseball and (hopefully) a #1 seed in the playoffs. Go Nats!