After he narrowly lost a duel with Clayton Kershaw in his last start, Haren wheezed from the start. He felt fine physically, but mechanically, “something was off,” Haren said. “I just wasn’t myself today.” Everth Cabrera roped a single into center to lead off the bottom of the first. A walk and doubles from Carlos Quentin and Jedd Gyorko gave the Padres a 3-0 lead before the inning ended.
The inning set the theme for Haren’s demise: cutters and splitters thrown with little tilt, left up in the strike zone. At this stage of his career, Haren, 32, operates with a narrow margin for error; he can still baffle lineups when his mid-80s collection of darting and sinking pitches find the corners. When he leaves them over the plate and up, hitters treat it like batting practice.
“The ball was just up all day,” Haren said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re playing the Padres or Tigers. If you leave balls out over the plate and up, they’re going to hammer it. I made way too many mistakes. I wasn’t able to keep it close.”
Haren settled for three innings, and Zimmerman launched Andrew Cashner’s hanging, 3-1 change-up 414 feet, into the upper deck in left in the fourth. Steve Lombardozzi, on base after one of his three hits, also trotted home to make it 3-2.
The Nationals would not remain competitive much longer. Will Venable smashed a belt-high cutter over the right field-fence to lead off the bottom of the fifth. Yonder Alonso doubled, Gyorko singled and hulking Kyle Blanks made a baseball disappear, lining another hanging cutter off the Western Metal Supply Company sign, giving the Padres a 7-2 lead.
Johnson planned to let his regulars play only one more inning. Then the Nationals strung four straight singles together in the seventh, knocking out Cashner and inching back into a 7-4 game. As Denard Span came back into the dugout after crossing the plate, Johnson told him: “You’re staying in now. We’re about to win this game.”
These Nationals, though, are in no condition to stage galvanizing comebacks. In the last of the seventh, the Padres brutalized Ryan Mattheus for five runs in one inning. Alonso finalized the scoring in the eighth, crushing the first pitch from Drew Storen over the right field fence.
The Nationals may set aside mediocrity soon and play to the level their talent suggests. Maybe they will get healthy and recapture the vibes from 2012. Sunday, all they had was another lost afternoon, more fit than start.
“It’s real disappointing,” Johnson said. “I hate to even talk about that one today.”