Lannan (2-4) worked his way out of major jams in the second and third innings by allowing only two runs. But he stranded seven runners in the process and seemed to be playing with fire throughout his appearance. Lannan then struggled in the fourth and fifth innings, allowing five more runs which caused Washington's two-run lead to evaporate.
The biggest thorn in Lannan's side proved to be Ryan Raburn. The utility outfielder, subbing for Detroit's regular center fielder, Austin Jackson, who has experienced back spasms since Sunday, drove in four runs, three on a decisive fifth-inning home run.
Raburn's 385-foot home run was the capper on the Tigers' victory as the Nationals were unable to make a dent in Detroit's strong bullpen. Washington went scoreless against Phil Coke, Joel Zumaya and Jose Valverde in the last three innings, falling to three games under .500 in the process.
Lannan was given a lead early in the game and heading into the Detroit fourth the Nationals were holding onto a 4-2 lead. But the Tigers loaded the bases in that inning, scoring on a Magglio Ordonez RBI double and a Carlos Guillen sacrifice fly to tie the score. Earlier, Raburn had drawn a bases-loaded walk and Guillen hit into a fielder's choice RBI groundout.
When the damage was done, Lannan had thrown 104 pitches, just 63 for strikes in 4 1/3 innings. He allowed 10 hits and four walks (one intentional).
"Today I didn't get the sinking two-seamer action on my pitches that go down and away," Lannan said. "The pitches were coming across the plate and not getting that true sinker action. I made a mistake to [Raburn] and got too much of the plate."
Lannan said that there are no physical issues and he didn't pinpoint anything mechanically as part of the problem.
"I just need to trust my stuff and let the ball do the work," he said.
While Lannan was laboring, Detroit starter Max Scherzer (3-6) had an uneven performance of his own. He allowed four Washington runs in the first four innings in which Scherzer gave up six hits. But the righty, obtained as part of a three-team deal that also brought Jackson to Detroit and sent Curtis Granderson to the Yankees, got stronger as the game wore on. Scherzer retired nine of the last 10 batters he faced and struck out nine Washington hitters in 112 pitches.
"I felt like both starters were getting hit around early and I was hoping [Lannan] could get us into the sixth inning but he wasn't able to make it," Washington manager Jim Riggleman said. "We had some nice swings [against Scherzer] but four of his strikeouts came on pitches where we were caught looking, so that tells me he was hitting the edges of the plate. Our guys know the strike zone pretty well."
Before the game Riggleman said that to be effective, Lannan needed to keep the ball down against opposing hitters. But he didn't do enough of that on Tuesday.
"It's not just about keeping the ball down but you want to do so with [movement]," Riggleman said. "You want the ball still sinking because that gets hitters to pound the ball into the ground. When [Lannan] does that he is very effective. Today the ball wasn't sinking. Right now he's searching, [Washington pitching coach] Steve [McCatty] is searching. He's a very good pitcher, but right now he's being tested."
Washington manufactured its first run of the game thanks almost completely to Nyjer Morgan. The Nats' center fielder laid down a perfect bunt that died on the third-base foul line 14 feet from home plate with one out in the first. He stole second and went to third on a rare throwing error by Detroit catcher Gerald Laird. Morgan then came home on a shallow fly out to right, just beating a strong throw from Brennan Boesch and Laird's tag.
Morgan was up to the same tricks in the third inning when he looped a one-out single into right. He stole his 14th base a few pitches later and after an intentional walk to Adam Dunn, scored on Josh Willingham's two-out single. Ivan Rodriguez followed with a two-out single of his own right up the middle on the first pitch from Scherzer, putting the Nationals up, 3-1.
"We want [Morgan] to be aggressive and it's really the first time in awhile he's gotten a break [attempting to steal]," Riggleman said. "On his first steal a better throw would have beaten him, but for once an opposing catcher didn't make a perfect throw."
Mike Morse continued his hot streak belting a two-run homer, his second of the year in the top of the fourth to the opposite field. At the time it gave Washington a 4-2 lead. Riggleman said Morse's hot streak likely means he will start again on Wednesday, a fact made easier by the American League designated hitter rule.
Tyler Walker pitched 2 2/3 innings of one-hit ball, giving the Nationals a lift and helping to save much of Washington's bullpen. That was one of the good signs that Rodriguez commented on after the game.
"We need to put this one behind us," Rodriguez said. "Our bullpen has been great and was great again tonight and Walker and Sean [Burnett, who pitched a scoreless eighth inning] gave us a chance to win."
Rodriguez is confident that Lannan will regain his form that he showed in four consecutive strong starts May 18-June 2 in which Lannan allowed five earned runs in 24 2/3 innings.
"John needs to get that sinker back and when he does he will be alright," Rodriguez said. "When you're down in this game, you have to work extra hard to get back on top."
Morgan and Willingham each finished with two hits in the game for the Nationals.
Tuesday marked the first time that the Nationals franchise played a regular-season game in Detroit since it moved to Washington in 2005. The Montreal Expos won their first Interleague contest over Detroit, 4-3, on June 13, 1997.