Before Friday afternoon, Dan Haren’s spring training had been a rebuke of his 2012 season. He threw the ball harder this March than he did all last summer. He induced awkward swings and dribblers. He struck out eight batters and walked one. He made last year – a 4.33 ERA and his first ever trip to the disabled list – seem like a certain aberration.
Then came a two-hour car ride Friday morning, a lifeless feeling in his right arm and a train-wreck first inning at Roger Dean Stadium. The Cardinals battered Haren for five runs over four innings. Jon Jay, the leadoff hitter, crushed a home run over the right field fence. Four batters later, Matt Adams crushed another homer. Haren bases his pitching philosophy on minimizing walks, but Friday he walked Matt Carpenter on four pitches and later issued Pete Kozma a walk after starting him with an 0-2 count.
Haren allowed only one run and two hits in his final four innings, and that run came on a walk, a groundout that Kozma used to race from first to third and a sacrifice fly. Haren took little solace from his improvement.
“That was just one of those days, man.” Haren said. “I felt like I was throwing a weighted ball out there. It was just bad, all the way around. As I went along it was a little bit better, but my first couple starts were far and away better than this. I just, I don’t know if it’s dead arm — or I don’t even know what that is. I just didn’t feel great.”
In his first three starts, Haren’s fastball ranged mostly from 88 to 91 miles per hour, and he even touched 93 in his first start. That stood as an improvement from 2012, when he averaged 89.5. Today, though, one scout clocked Haren’s fastball at 84-87 mph early on, topping out at 89. Another got him at 87-90 later in the outing.
“Soft stuff today,” one scout said during the start. “Fastball life and command is fine. Just looks like he has it on cruise control today.”
Said Manager Davey Johnson: “I didn’t have to see the radar guns. I could see the way he was throwing. I was ready to go hit.”
Haren, who signed a one-year, $13 million deal in December to become the Nationals’ fifth starter, had no concerns about his health. But in the midst of a long spring, Haren felt worn down today. At one point during a comically self-critical interview, which began with a pair of expletives, he called his pitches “slop” and the outing “embarrassing.”
“My whole body’s just kind of achy,” Haren said. “My arm is slow, really slow right now. It’s actually been fast. I felt really good the first couple starts. But my arm was just slow. I don’t know about making anymore two-and-a-half-hour drives, either. I’m getting too old for that.”
Haren, 32, did not want to use the long ride from Viera to Jupiter as an excuse, but he also suggested he’d rather throw in a minor league back home than make another trip to Roger Dean Stadium. Haren struggled with back and hip issues last season, and the car ride, “is definitely not ideal for what I’ve kind of dealt with in the past.”
Haren may well have experienced the same kind of “dead arm” issues as Jordan Zimmermann earlier this week. For Haren, that dropped his velocity into the mid-80s. One scout said Haren elevated his fastball in the first inning, a recipe for longballs and line drives.
“When I have dead arm, it’s not pretty,” Haren said. “When Jordan Zimmermann has dead arm, he’s throwing 95 still. It’s tough, though. Obviously, I was battling the whole way through.”
While he was hard on himself, Haren was not especially worried about the bad start. “Actually I had my best spring of my career last year,” Haren said facetiously. “That worked out well for me.” Indeed, Haren’s best spring came last year, when he punched up a 2.05 ERA. His best ERA before that had been 3.94 in 2006.
“I mean, I think everyone usually has one hiccup every spring,” Haren said. “People probably get a little more panicked when I do, just because of last year, so just all the more reason to look forward to the next start. I’ll be fine. I’ll be out there. It’ll be better, guaranteed.”