On Wednesday afternoon, Nationals hitters will settle into the batter’s box to face an old friend.
Dan Haren, who spent one season in Washington last year, will start for the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the winter before the 2013 season, the Nationals signed Haren to a one-year, $13 million deal, adding an accomplished right-hander and what they hoped was the final piece to a championship-level team. Haren’s up-and-down year instead was mired by a horrid start, a stint on the disabled list to rest his mind and then a second-half turnaround as the Nationals fell short of the playoffs.
Haren, well-liked by his Nationals teammates, signed a one-year, $10 million deal with the Dodgers this offseason, a move that put him back home. And so far this season, his results have been more in line with his standard: a 4-0 record and a 2.39 ERA over 37 2/3 innings.
“It’s definitely nicer being home,” Haren said before the series opener on Monday afternoon. “I have no regrets coming out here. The only regret I had was the way I started out the season and the way really the team started out. I enjoyed my time here. Guys were great. Bonded pretty quickly. I still watch them a lot, especially the starting pitchers. I’m happy to be closer [to home] right now.”
As he admitted last year, Haren said that he wanted to do so well in Washington, with a team that had such high expectations, that he put more pressure on himself. Instead, as he struggled, it snowballed. His confidence was shot in the first half when he posted a 6.15 ERA over his first 15 starts. After his disabled list stint for a so-called shoulder injury, Haren returned, had a 3.29 ERA over his final 16 games, 15 of them starts, and his confidence improved. He still finished with a 4.67 ERA, the worst of his career.
Haren didn’t struggle last season because his wife and kids were in Southern California, but having them around more, he believes, could have helped him snap out of a rough mental place.
“It’s no fun for anybody going back to an empty house and I was thinking about baseball too much,” he said. “Sometimes your wife and kids take your mind off it. Definitely nice to spend more time with them. We still go on 10-day road trips. We’re on one now and we’re on one in a week. There’s still a lot of time away from home.”
The Dodgers and Nationals are similar in one respect: Both teams have high expectations and are popular picks to contend for a National League title. The Dodgers, however, are quintessentially Hollywood, a team with a record $235 million payroll filled with former all-stars and big names.
“This team is a little bit older,” Haren said. “There’s a lot of veterans. You look around and a lot of guys who have been around for a ton of years. In that clubhouse, much younger. The sky is the limit really for the expectations of guys like [Ian] Desmond and Bryce [Harper] and Stras and Jordan [Zimmermann] and everybody. I think the people in this room have kinda done it before whereas people last year we were just trying to maintain what they’d done the previous year. Talent-wise, last year we were very talented. This year, too. We won  games and we were pretty bad for two months.”
Haren even joked that there was a small dose of drama before Monday’s game about which veteran players to give the four biggest lockers in the visitor’s clubhouse, the standard practice. The larger lockers were occupied by tenured Dodgers player such as Matt Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez. Haren, a 12-year veteran, was in a regular-sized locker, as was Juan Uribe (14 years), Carl Crawford (13 years and four-time all-star) and Clayton Kershaw (a two-time NL Cy Young Award winner). “Guys making $25 million bucks a year get a little locker over here,” Haren said jokingly.
Despite his rough season, Haren left with fond memories of the Nationals’ decision-makers. He talked with General Manager Mike Rizzo on the final day of the season, the day after his final start, and had a frank conversation about the future.
“He was one of the biggest supporters of me even when the times were tough,” Haren said. “When I’m doing bad, the last people I wanna see is the GM and the owner. That’s how I feel and I think that’s how anyone feels. Riz was great. Mark Lerner is in the clubhouse quite a bit and he was positive the whole time. I felt bad at the beginning but they made me feel great. I think they handled it really well. I tried to handle it as best I could.”
When Haren takes the mound on Wedneday, some fans may still have bitter memories of last season’s disappointment and he fully understands.
“I don’t think fans loved me very much,” he said. “I was nice – as nice as I could be. I was booed quite a bit. But hey, I understand. They would boo when I was running to first base on a groundball. I got a bad back. They didn’t love me but I can’t blame them. I came in with such high hopes and I kinda spoiled it there. Regained a few fans as the season went along but ultimately we didn’t accomplish what we could have accomplished.”
Standing on the mound and facing old friends won’t be difficult for Haren. The Dodgers are his sixth team in 12 major league seasons.
“I gotta try and compete just like any other team,” he said. “I’ve done a little bit of homework on them. I think they’re playing pretty well. I know [Adam] LaRoche has gotten off to a really good start. Last year was a really slow start for him. I’m happy for him. The injuries they’ve had have been tough. It’ll definitely be a tough test.”
FROM THE POST
Nats beat Dodgers, 4-0, after a long rain delay, writes Adam Kilgore.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 8, Durham 4: Josh Roenicke started and fired four scoreless innings, walking three and striking out three. Roenicke is being stretched out; he has started four times in the past three weeks. These are the first four starts of his minor and major league career. Zach Johnson fired 2 1/3 innings for the win and Manny Delcarmen earned the save. In his first game back, Steven Souza Jr. went 3 for 5 with three RBI, including a solo home run. Emmanuel Burriss and Josh Johnson each had two hits.
Richmond 8, Harrisburg 2: On rehab, Wilson Ramos caught all nine innings and went 0 for 4. Paolo Espino allowed six runs on seven hits over four innings. Caleb Ramsey went 3 for 3 with an RBI. Cutter Dykstra added two hits.
Potomac 4, Frederick 0: Ian Dickson fired five scoreless innings for the win. Matthew Spann struck out five over four scoreless innings. Oscar Tejeda went 2 for 4 with two RBI. Brandon Miller also drove in two runs.
Hagerstown 6, Lexington 5: Hector Silvestre tossed five scoreless innings. Estarlin Martinez drew three walks and scored two runs. Austin Chubb hit a solo home run and John Wooten drove in two runs.