MILWAUKEE — Six weeks ago, as Dan Haren walked off the mound at Nationals Park, it was impossible not to hear the boos raining down on him.
He carried with him what was the highest ERA among qualified starters in the major leagues. A three-time All-Star, multi-year Cy Young contender and $13-million free agent acquisition, Haren was enduring the worst season of his professional career. A 15-day stint on the disabled list, suggested by the higher ups and validated by inflammation in his pitching shoulder, followed.
Saturday night, in the process of leading the Nationals’ to a 3-0 victory — with the help of homers from Adam LaRoche and Wilson Ramos — Haren tossed seven scoreless innings and lowered his ERA since that awful June afternoon to 2.40.
For the second consecutive start Haren went seven strong innings. And for the third time since coming off the disabled list on July 8, he allowed one run or fewer.
“Finally contributing to this year,” Haren said. “I guess better late than never.”
Haren was one of the Nationals’ few offseason acquisitions. Needing a replacement for Edwin Jackson, they chose him as their addition to a starting rotation that was one of the game’s best in 2012. They viewed him through his track record: consistent, durable and possessing the ability to be as dominant as few in the game.
His career ERA entering this season was 3.66 and his strikeout to walk ratio was among the best in the game’s history. Over the course of the previous 10 years, Haren had thrown 16 complete games and six shutouts.
But in a 2013 season that has gone little like they hoped to this point, the first part of Haren’s season is near the top of the list of things the Nationals did not expect.
He did not expect it. The failure ate at him.
“It was rough,” Haren said Saturday night, after striking out six Brewers and walking two. He only once allowed more than one baserunner in an inning. “It was rough on me, on the field and off the field even. It’s nice to kind of put that behind me and hopefully just move forward.”
“He’s got a great resume coming in,” said manager Davey Johnson. “I know he wasn’t proud of the way it was going… He’s certainly pitching good now. That’s the good thing.”
Haren’s focus on Saturday was on keeping the ball down and trying to take advantage of a Brewers team he knew was near the top of the league in putting the first pitch in play. He reminded himself throughout the night to make good pitches early in the count.
“Everything was down,” Ramos said. “That was an outstanding job for him. I’m happy to see him back… I’m very excited for him to throw like that. Especially when we put zeroes on the scoreboard. I love that.”
While Haren never felt his shoulder was a big enough issue to warrant the DL stint, he admits that the break gave him time to clear his head.
In the season’s first three months, any time Haren made a mistake it was hit. On 19 of those occasions, it was hit out of the ballpark.
So, while also working to slow down his split-fingered fastball a bit, mostly Haren worked to remind himself to keep the ball down in the zone. He has allowed just two home runs — both to Andrew McCutchen — since coming off the DL.
The Brewers are not having a great season. But their No.’s 2-5 hitters are also not ones to overlook. Haren held them hitless in 14 at-bats. In his final inning of work, Carlos Gomez struck out looking on three pitches.
In helping the Nationals win their second consecutive game and improve to 54-56, Haren continued to produce the way the Nationals hoped he would. The way they expected he would. The way he expected he would.
“I think I appreciate it more now just because of how crappy the first part of the year has gone,” Haren said of the pride he’s taken in the last few outings. “I really learned to appreciate a good outing, and now, putting together a few good outings.
“But it’s just a matter of maintaining that for the last two months and continuing to help the team… We’ve got our work cut out for us but we can’t really look at the big picture, just got to look at tomorrow.”