Nationals Manager Davey Johnson moved his hand right, then left, then right again but cutting down towards the ground and the left with the same motion. He was trying to mimic the array of slashing and dipping pitches that new starter Dan Haren locates up and down, and left and right through the strike zone. “This way, that way, this way, that way,” he said.
Haren took the mound at Joker Marchant Stadium on Sunday afternoon to face the Detroit Tigers with catcher Wilson Ramos behind the plate for only the second time together in a game. The 32-year-old right-hander used the opportunity to work on his goals this spring: attack hitters inside and continue to build a rapport with Ramos, who is easing into action behind the plate following his knee surgeries last season.
With every start, Haren can demonstrate for his battery mate the type of pitches he throws and how he wants to work the inside portion of the plate, while building his workload. In the 2-1 loss, in which Haren allowed two runs on five hits over four innings but looked sharper than last start, he took another step forward.
“It’s a work in progress, it really is,” Haren said. “I threw to Kurt [Suzuki] in between my start this time so if Kurt’s going to catch me in the next game I’d like to throw to Wilson in my bullpen. It’s a work in progress. Kurt knows me a little better because I’ve faced him a lot. I mean he caught me five years ago but he’s faced me a lot so he has a really good idea. With Wilson I’m talking to him in between innings. It’s getting there. It was better today than it was last time but we still have some work to do.”
Ramos caught five innings on Sunday — including Drew Storen in the fifth — for the first time since his May injury. He understands he needs to spend more time learning Haren’s repertoire and pitching philosophy. Spring allows for that goal.
“Everything [Haren] throws is moving around,” Ramos said. “He got good command and got a lot of experience. I can work with him. Now he teaches me how he like to throw. That’s important for me. Coming back from my surgery, I miss a long time. During the last season, I was watching TV and watching the games on TV and learn a lot how my pitching staff like to throw. I never see him before. But now I feel like I’m on the same page with him.”
Haren, a 10-year veteran, wants to throw inside to right-handers because he found success with it last season when he was learning how to adjust to injuries and altered mechanics. He admits being stubborn by refusing to throw there before but is using spring training as practice. Ramos, he found, likes to call fastballs inside, so the two were a perfect match on Sunday. Haren felt much better with his progress; he got Torii Hunter out twice by pounding him inside.
“You judge by the way hitters react, really,” Haren said. “For the most part, I feel like it’s opening up the outside part of the plate for me a little bit. Just if you move guys’ feet, it always helps. If you move a batter’s feet in that at-bat, a lot of times you’re going to have success. So it’s just about making hitters uncomfortable, really.”
Haren was incredibly efficient at times on Sunday, needing only eight pitches in the first inning and 11 in the fourth. The Nationals’ defense missed two balls in the second inning that were scored as hits but were easily playable and forced Haren to pitch longer. Even then, he needed only 61 pitches in four innings. The arm strength and endurance are building, he said. He feels healthy. His velocity sat between 89 and 91 miles per hour — a good sign he is within a healthy range.
“People are obsessed with velocity,” he said. “It’s like the game has passed me by, in that sense. You can only name a handful of right-handed starting pitchers that throw under 90 (mph) off the top of your head. Velocity just gives me a little bit more of a margin for error. My game is control, though, so if I’m hitting my spots, whether it’s 87 or 90, I’ll get the guy out.”
>>> A funny observation from Haren to pass along: He is an incredibly self-aware pitcher, and when asked what makes Washington different from the four other teams he had pitched for, he was unbelievably frank:
“I’m the oldest starting pitcher. Let’s see. I throw, by far, the slowest. I’m the second-best hitting pitcher. … I’ve seen him in the cage. Strasburg, he’s good. No, but I mean coming here the youthfulness, it’s fun to be a part of. The team is built to win for a long time. I don’t know how long my tenure will be here. I know this year’s going to be exciting. When it comes down to it, it’s all about the fans and the fans have a lot to be excited for this year and upcoming years.