Dan Haren’s initial annoyance at being placed on the disabled list faded sometime over the past week. He wanted at first to keep pitching, but after 10 days on the shelf, he recognizes the time away allowed him a necessary physical and mental break.
“Having a couple bad starts in a row, especially at the end there before I went on the DL, my confidence was definitely shaken,” Haren said. “I just took a step back. I took a couple days off throwing. I just kind of tried to reset.”
The end of the process will come soon. After throwing a 70-pitch simulated game this afternoon at sweltering Nationals Park, Haren will likely return to the Nationals’ rotation July 9 at Philadelphia.
“He threw better than I thought he would,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “There’s not really a lot of adrenaline flowing when you go out there and are throwing at some guys in T-shirts, but he did good.”
The Nationals placed Haren on the disabled list with inflammation in his right shoulder June 23, the day after his ERA rose to a major-league high 6.15 in his ninth loss of the year. Haren received a cortisone shot two days later, and he has felt significant improvement in his arm during throwing sessions since.
“I’m getting the ball to where I usually do,” Haren said. “Before, the last couple games, I’d always long-toss in between starts and before the game, and it was a struggle to get the ball there. So my arm feels, I guess, moving faster. I think it will help the crispness of all the pitches, and hopefully I can execute better as well.”
As General Manager Mike Rizzo stood behind the batting cage watching on, Haren threw a three-inning simulated game. Tyler Moore, Steve Lombardozzi and Chad Tracy stood in against him. He took two-minute breaks between “innings,” sitting in the dugout before heading out to face another few hitters. Haren jokingly said it felt like he had thrown 120 pitches because of the heat and short breaks between pitching.
“He looked really game-ready,” Moore said. “And it was so hot outside. He still wanted to go out there and throw some more. He’s a competitor. You just want him on the mound. He’s a team guy that you want to play defense behind.”
Said Tracy: “He looked good. The way he was doing it was a lot more stressful than it would have been in a real game. It’s frickin’ smoking hot out there, and he’s not taking any break hardly. It was tough. We were hot, and we weren’t even pitching.”
Haren focused today on his splitter, a pitch he had all but stopped throwing in his final few starts. He changed his grip, holding the ball his index finger and middle finger further apart, almost like a forkball, with one finger on a seam. He learned it from reliever Ryan Mattheus.
“It’s just something that we do all the time, bounce things off each other,” Mattheus said.
Haren sought Mattheus’s help because the difference between his fastball and splitter is about 10 miles per hour. During his time on the disabled list, Haren identified one problem with his repertoire. He had trouble fooling hitters because all of his pitches hummed at similar velocities. According to FanGraphs.com, Haren’s fastball (89.2 mph), cutter (85.8) and splitter (83.5) offered little disparity.
“The last game, I actually started throwing more curveballs just to get a bigger gap,” Haren said. “They were just all kind of clumping together. My cutter’s been a little harder this year, where I’ve been trying to back it off a little bit, and then trying to slow down my split a little bit to create some different velocities in there, rather than everything hovering around the same. My split definitely felt good.”
Moore said Haren had the ability to throw two different splitters, one hard that dove a little and one slow that dove more. “He was being athletic on the mound, doing what he wants,” Moore said. Haren struck Tracy out with a 3-2 splitter, which started out looking like a strike and fooled him into swinging as it fell out of the zone.
“That right there is good stuff,” Tracy said. “He can make the ball go a couple different directions. Against Danny, you’re trying to grind out an at-bat. He’s tough. He looked good. That stuff right there will play any day in the big leagues.”
Soon, Haren will receive another non-simulated chance to see if his re-worked stuff really can still play in the majors. Last year, he went on the disabled list for the first time in his career, and when he returned he posted a 3.58 ERA over 13 starts.
Haren is eligible to come off the disabled list July 8, but his turn in the rotation will next surface July 9 against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. Taylor Jordan, whom the Nationals summoned from Class AA Harrisburg to replace Haren, will start tomorrow at Nationals Park against the Brewers.