Nats come alive to support Haren
In his absolute lowest moments, Dan Haren never tried to sugarcoat things, never tried to make excuses for his lousy performance, never shied away from the criticism heaped upon him before he was unceremoniously dumped on the disabled list with a dubious physical ailment.
"Baseball is an incredibly humbling game," the veteran right-hander said. "When you're up, it'll just knock you right down. I couldn't have really gotten much lower than I did when I was on the DL. I mean, I was a bad start or two away from getting released, probably. That's just the truth of it, I think. I definitely feel way better the way I'm pitching now. This is more me."
The version of Haren that tossed seven standout innings Friday night during the Nationals' 9-2 thumping of the Phillies, and the version that has consistently pitched well since returning to the active roster one month ago, is exactly the guy the Nats thought they were getting last winter.
It may be too little, too late. But if nothing else, it's restoring Haren's faith in himself, not to mention his teammates' faith in him.
"I'm happy for him, because nobody wanted to do better than he did," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "He didn't come over here to pitch like he pitched for the first half. Since he came off the DL ... he's kind of thrown the ball like everyone knows he can throw the ball. I'm happy that he's persisted and worked through that. Hopefully he can do it for 45, 50 more games for us."
The odds of Haren making enough of an impact down the stretch to catapult the Nationals back into the playoff race are remote. Teammates, though, might want to take a cue from the 32-year-old. He could have folded up his tent and pitched out the string. Instead, he battled through it and now is reaping the benefits for his efforts.
When he landed on the DL on June 22, Haren's ERA stood at 6.15, his WHIP at 1.44. He was serving up a league-worst 2.09 home runs per nine innings. In six starts since, his ERA is 2.43, his WHIP only 1.13. And he has surrendered only two home runs in 37 innings (both to Andrew McCutchen on July 22).
"I think back to spring training when he just ... everything was getting blasted, nothing went right," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "And he just took that right into the year. For him to be able to turn it around with a new club is awesome."
The differences for Haren during this stretch have been subtle. He's keeping the ball down in the zone with more regularity, in turn keeping the ball in the park. He's also using a new grip on his splitter, one that has helped decrease his velocity on that pitch a couple of ticks, betting distinguishing it from the rest of his repertoire.
Subtle differences, though, have led to strikingly different results.
"I really just tried to remind myself when we've got a runner on or two runners on, two outs, just trying to miss down in the zone, rather than before when I was just attacking them and attacking them," he said. "I've just been a little bit more concerned with location, rather than just concerned with throwing strikes."
An increase in run support hasn't hurt, either, especially on Friday night when the Nationals blasted former teammate John Lannan for eight runs in only five innings.
A well-balanced attack saw every player in the starting lineup record at least one hit. Even Haren contributed, drawing a bases-loaded walk to force in a run in the bottom of the fifth.
On the heels of a wretched series against the Braves, in which they went a combined 1-for-19 with runners in scoring position, the Nationals went 5-for-7 in those situations against Lannan. The left-hander, making his first career appearance at Nationals Park as a member of the visiting club, departed having matched his career-high with eight earned runs allowed.
"When you make him throw it over, you can get after him," manager Davey Johnson said. "But that was one of his worst games this year, I'm sure. He pitched behind on everybody."
On nights like this, it's not hard to understand why general manager Mike Rizzo essentially picked Haren over Lannan as his No. 5 starter last winter. Haren may not have lived up to his end of the bargain for three months, and he probably won't completely make up for his struggles before the season ends.
Right now, he's just happy to be contributing the way he believed he would all along.
"It's just kind of unfortunate that it didn't start off like this," Haren said. "But at least I'm showing that it's in there."