MILWAUKEE — The harder he tried, the more the solution evaded Dan Haren. He watched video to find a mechanical flaw. He pored over sabermetric statistics, hoping they might reveal a fresh answer or at least a measure of solace. He switched grips and altered the speed of his pitches. Nothing brought back the pitcher he used to be.
Haren made a decision as he spent 15 days on the disabled list in late June, the result of which reverberated again Saturday night in the Washington Nationals’ 3-0 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers. Haren chose simplicity. Keep the ball down and just pitch, he told himself.
The approach turned Haren’s season around and continued to reap dividends as he steamrolled the Brewers for seven scoreless innings over 102 pitches at Miller Park, allowing four hits and two walks with six strikeouts. Milwaukee second baseman Rickie Weeks cracked a double to lead off the game. He would be the last Brewer to reach scoring position against Haren.
“Going on the DL was just kind of a chance to regroup,” Haren said. “Physically, I felt fine. It kind of allowed to just hit reset and cut the year into to two parts and leave the first part behind.”
The best start of Haren’s season anchored the Nationals’ second straight win. Wilson Ramos clobbered his seventh home run. Adam LaRoche blistered an opposite-field homer, just his second hit in eight games. Before he left in the sixth inning with a minor groin tweak that may hold him out Sunday, Jayson Werth swatted another two hits and scored the Nationals’ first run. Tyler Clippard set up Rafael Soriano’s 28th save.
The Atlanta Braves won their ninth straight game, holding the Nationals’ deficit in the National League East at 111 / 2 games. But the Nationals could revel in Haren’s revitalization, which Ramos abridged nicely: “Everything’s down,” he said.
The performance followed the same script Haren had used since he came off the disabled list July 8. He peppered the lower half of the strike zone and used caution when necessary — he stranded Weeks, for example, after striking out Jean Segura and pitching around Brewers cleanup hitter Jonathan Lucroy. In 82 innings before his DL stint, Haren allowed 19 homers. In 30 innings since, he has yielded two.
“I’m trying to keep the ball in the park, honestly,” Haren said. “I’m getting a few more groundballs than I was. I’m really focusing on, if I’m going to miss, miss at the bottom of the strike zone.”
Haren was not just efficient; he was downright nasty. Carlos Gomez whiffed so wildly at one two-strike splitter he fell to one knee and his helmet fell off. Gomez caught the headgear and walked back to the home dugout with it tucked under his arm.
“He was trying to hit it 500 feet,” Haren said. “A lot of pitching is trying to use aggressiveness against them.”
When Haren landed on the disabled list, he was arguably, by the sheer numbers, the worst starter in the majors. In the five starts since he came off the DL, Haren has punched up a 2.40 ERA. If he can muster another two months like that, the Nationals will feel far less distressed about the one-year, $13 million deal they gave him in December.
“He can throw every pitch in any count, anywhere,” Ramos said. “He’s got more confidence.”
The Nationals did not muster much offense against Brewers right-hander Donovan Hand, just enough. In the second inning, Werth led off with a single. With one out, Ian Desmond walked. Standing on second base, Werth studied Hand, trying to time his move. He saw an opening and bolted for third base, swiping his fifth bag of the season without a throw.
“I’ve been known to take third a time or two,” said Werth, who was unwilling to reveal his read on Hand.
Anthony Rendon then delivered, lifting a sinker to intermediate right field. Werth crouched on third as Norichika Aoki charged the ball and fired home.
The ball arrived a split second before Werth’s hard slide into the corner of the plate. Werth popped up and looked over his shoulder as home plate umpire Chris Conroy signaled safe. Werth pumped his fist and howled, an exceptional display of emotion for scoring a run that had given the Nationals a 1-0 lead in the second inning.
“I was actually excited he got it right and called me safe,” Werth said. “That’s how I play. I’ve always played with fire and enthusiasm. That’s just how I’ve always done it. Me being me, really.”
In the sixth, the Nationals led, 2-0, with two outs and one on. As LaRoche prepared to hit, he was 1 for his past 28. Desmond sidled next to LaRoche and suggested he use Werth’s bat. It was a different model than LaRoche’s but roughly the same size. It had been working for Werth, who led the NL in on-base plus slugging percentage in July. Before he grabbed Werth’s bat from the rack, LaRoche didn’t ask because he didn’t want Werth to say no.
“You get to the point where you’ll try anything,” LaRoche said. “Plus I think he’s about 18 for his last 20. I figured that would be a good bat to pick up.”
Hand threw LaRoche a first-pitch, 91-mph fastball over the plate. LaRoche smoked it over the left-center field fence. As LaRoche circled the bases, Werth heard a teammate yell at him, “That’s your bat!”
“I didn’t know until he hit it,” Werth said. “When he came in, I acted like I was mad.”
Desmond had been holding his own bat on deck. But after LaRoche’s homer, he decided he, too, would try Werth’s lumber. Alas, he lined out to left.
“These guys,” Manager Davey Johnson said, grinning.
Haren has savored his recent reversal. For years struggle remained foreign to him — from 2005 through 2011, Haren won 15 games per year with a 3.49 ERA. Now that he has experienced the depths, the success means more to him.
“I appreciate it more now, just because of how crappy the first part of the year has gone,” Haren said. “I really learned how to appreciate a good outing. It’s just a matter of maintaining that for the last two months. It was rough. It was rough on me on the field and off the field, even. It’s nice to put that behind me.”
“It was good to take a step back, I think,” Haren added. “Hopefully it’s not too late.”