Dan Haren improved, but not enough: ‘I’m going to be better’

brushback_harperDan Haren handed the ball to Manager Davey Johnson in the sixth inning and trudged off the mound on Monday night in Nationals Park towards the home dugout. A St. Louis Cardinals runner stood at each base, his responsibility, with no outs on the scoreboard and a 3-2 deficit. He pitched in the sixth inning for the first time this season. He was his most pitch-efficient. He allowed the fewest hits in four starts and gave up three runs against a potent and patient Cardinals lineup. He had, by most indications, performed better than his previous three starts.

It was, however, still not enough. Haren stumbled in the sixth inning, including that go-ahead RBI single to Yadier Molina that proved to be the difference. He walked an uncharacteristic three batters. Haren, a veteran signed to a one-year, $13-million deal to help solidify the rotation, took the loss, his third this season, and his ERA sits at 7.36. Afterward, despite what his manager saw as an encouraging performance, Haren refused to fully acknowledge it, even saying it wasn’t a step forward.

“I guess a little bit better,” he said. “I mean, I gotta get obviously deeper in the game. I feel good. My stuff is good. I’ve had stints like this in my career. I just have to stay positive. Obviously, St. Louis is a very tough lineup. They were battling me on foul balls, a few walks, close calls. But they worked me hard. I gave us a chance until the fifth then I got into a mess.”

Johnson gave a more encouraging assessment of Haren’s performance, saying that Monday’s starter, albeit a loss that ended with a bad taste in the sixth inning, could be a start to build on.

“That’s a very positive outing for me,” Johnson said. “I think he’s gotta be much more pleased. I think that’s more of the Dan Haren we’re used to seeing. He used all his pitches and threw more off-speed pitches today than he normally does, which I like.”

According to our Pitchf/X data of his start, Haren threw 21 splitters — a higher ratio than normal — because it felt better in the bullpen as he warmed up before the game. He also threw 36 cut fastballs, a pitch that he has used successfully in recent seasons but felt he wrongly shied away from using this season. His cutter set up his other pitches. He threw inside against right-handed batters. What doomed Haren were walks and the breaks of the sixth inning.

“I felt really good,” he said. “I’ve compared this year to last year and the year past. Stuff-wise was either the same or better. My split was good today. I gotta be better. No one is more frustrated than I am. I gotta give us a better chance to win.” He added later: “I’ve got to simplify things and just go out there … and try and have a little bit of fun rather than stress so much. My stuff is good enough right now. If I was throwing 85, like I was at the end of last year, I’d be more concerned.”

The first two runs Haren allowed came in the third inning on a double by Allen Craig off the left-center field wall, a cutter that he fished out of the bottom of the strike zone and drove far into the chilly air. Haren walked Matt Carpenter, one of the two to score on Craig’s double, on a 3-1 cutter that was a strike on the Pitchf/X data. Haren admitted to being too fine with his pitches, a result of overcompensating for being too aggressive with strikes in the first start in which he allowed four home runs to Cincinnati.

Haren faltered in the sixth inning when he accidentally hit Matt Holliday with a pitch and then gave up consecutive first-pitch cutters to Carlos Beltran and Molina, who drove in the third run of the game by lining the low pitch to right field. Haren walked David Freese to load the bases on a 3-2 sinker that missed a few inches inside. The three walks helped drive Haren’s pitch count up, leaving the game after 98 pitches in the sixth. Johnson emerged to pull Haren for Craig Stammen, who worked out of the jam without allowing a run with an important double play and strikeout.

“I’ve been around for 10 years,” Haren said. “I’m used to throwing seven, eight innings every time. I’ve thrown 200 innings many times. Going five innings, you’re not going to do that. Positive thing is health-wise I feel really good. And I just gotta keep believing in myself and I’ll take the ball in five days and when I step on the mound I’m going to expect to win.”

Whether he will fully admit it, Haren performed better through the first five innings on Monday than he has at any point through his previous three starts. Now, he just hopes to do it more consistently and deeper into games. “We’re going to hit our stride,” he said. “I’m going to be better.”

FROM THE POST

The Cardinals maintained their mystery over the Nationals, beating them and Dan Haren, 3-2, writes Adam Kilgore.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Ian Desmond not concerned about early errors

Anthony Rendon to the minors when Ryan Zimmerman returns

Rafael Soriano to return Tuesday, Drew Storen available to close Monday

Wilson Ramos set to come off disabled list in next week

Nationals mistakes don’t change season outlook, Thomas Boswell says

The Nationals’ standing is better than their performance

The Nationals had perfect timing for Anthony Rendon’s service time

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Scranton/Wilkes-Barre 8, Syracuse 1: Ross Ohlendorf started and allowed seven runs on eight hits over 5 1/3 innings and struck out five. His ERA over four starts is 5.57. Left-handed reliever J.C. Romero made his seventh appearance of the season and allowed a run, unearned, over 1 2/3 innings and struck out three. He has allowed only six hits and struck out eight this season. Jeff Kobernus, playing center field, went 1 for 4 with an RBI and is hitting .439 on the season. Micah Owings went 2 for 3.

Reading 3, Harrisburg 2: Paul Demny started and allowed three runs on five hits over five innings and struck out eight. Brian Goodwin and Rick Hague both doubled. Matt Swynenberg gave up only one hit in three innings of relief while striking out seven. He has a 2.92 ERA over 12 1/3 innings and a 4.5 BB/K ratio.

Carolina 3, Potomac 0: Taylor Jordan allowed two runs on seven hits over 5 1/3 innings while striking out five. Although he suffered his first loss of the season, Jordan has a 1.48 ERA. Billy Burns went 1 for 4 and is hitting .345. Cutter Dykstra and Adrian Nieto each collected two hits.

Hagerstown was off.

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