Dan Haren pitches better, and maybe luckier, in latest start

(Greg Fiume / Getty Images)

(Greg Fiume / Getty Images)

After Dan Haren delivered his first quality start with the Nationals, he submitted an interesting theory as to what he had done differently Saturday from his disappointing first four starts of the year, when he failed to record even one out past the fifth inning.

“Nothing,” Haren said. He explained that he had made no changes to his delivery or his repertoire. He may thrown a few more splitters than usual Saturday, but that was nothing more than a standard, minor between-start adjustment. Manager Davey Johnson thought he focused more on pitching down in the zone, but Haren insisted that’s always a priority for him.

Before today, Haren had a 7.36 ERA. Against the Reds, he allowed two earned runs in six innings on five hits, walking none while striking out five. He looked like a different pitcher, the one the Nationals thought they got when they signed him to a one-year, $13 million deal in free agency.

“It’s really not as much different as people would think,” Haren said.

Haren seems to think about the game in a different way than most pitchers. He understands how little control the pitcher has once a hitter puts the ball in play. For his entire career, Haren has focused on maximizing strikeouts and minimizing walks. He did not use this as an excuse as he struggled through four starts, but Haren today suggested bad luck may have been a reason for his rotten start.

“I feel like this year, the mistakes I’ve made have been hit really well,” Haren said. “A lot of times, you get away with a couple mistakes in a game, and I really haven’t been getting away with anything. But I’ve kept a really positive mind frame in between starts, which is hard to do.”

Haren may have a point. Entering Saturday, opponents had a .415 batting average on balls in play against Haren. BABIP can often indicate how hard hitters are hitting the ball, but .415 is so extreme it has to include some bad luck. Also, 16.1 percent of the fly balls he allowed had gone over the fence for homers, well higher than his previous career high and probably unsustainable – only four pitchers had such a high rate last season.

On Saturday, Haren did not even feel as strong in the bullpen as he did in earlier start, which he said actually helped him to focus more on location during the game. “That was more like him,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “Much better.”

No matter if luck played a factor in Haren’s improvement, he could still enjoy a strong performance.

“It sucks it’s taken so long to have a good outing, but I finally feel like part of the team,” Haren said. “I’ve got to be like this or better the rest of the year. There’s no excuse for me not to be. I’m happy with the way it went. I’m not going to get too overblown about it. It’s just one start. I think I’ve been throwing the ball a little bit better as the year’s gone on.

“My confidence has been building ever since the first game, getting pounded in Cincinnati. From then on, my confidence has gotten better and better, more and more. Today, I know I’ll feel good coming into the next start. When I took the ball today, I felt like I was going to win.”

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