The quiet that engulfed the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse Friday evening drew the attention of Dan Haren. Four months ago, none of them would’ve imagined they’d be staring at a sub-.500 record days before the calendar would flip to August. But it wasn’t just the losses. It was the way they were losing them, and the one that had led to this silence was an 11-0 kick to the teeth by the New York Mets.
Haren is nothing if not self-aware. He knew he hadn’t won a game since May, knew that 14 of the Nationals losses had come in games he’d started. He knew that many possible momentum shifts in the season had come to a screeching halt with one of his outings.
“I take a lot of the blame,” he said.
But then the Nationals walked off on the Mets in Friday’s nightcap with a guy who started the season at Triple-A matching Mets ace Matt Harvey nearly every step of the way.
And Haren took the mound Saturday afternoon to pitch perhaps his finest game in a Nationals’ uniform, leading the Nationals to a homer-happy 4-1 victory over the Mets for their third win in the last four games.
Despite it being part of a 3-7 stretch since the All-Star break, despite the Nationals’ 10-14 July, the question hung in the air once again: was this the start of something?
“After that 11-0 game, I think that could be rock bottom there,” Haren said after tossing seven superb innings and holding the Mets to just one run off three hits and a walk. “We don’t have any time for hitting bottom any more. That’s it. If we’re going to hit rock bottom, that was the time and we have to go from there.
“The job (Ross) Ohlendorf did (on Friday), I mean a bad start after that 11-0 game and we’re in trouble going against Harvey. It really was a huge start by him. Winning that game yesterday I think made us feel like, ‘OK, we’re not out of this yet.’ And winning today will hopefully get us some momentum. We don’t have any more time to get into any losing streaks or to hit rock bottom. That’s it.”
Perhaps things will look different in a week. Perhaps this will be another moment of fits and starts for the Nationals in which they follow strong games with flat ones. They enjoyed an uplifting walk-off victory Thursday afternoon, only to produce the aforementioned blowout the next day.
But they enjoyed another walk-off Friday night, and they came out firing on Saturday even from the most unlikely of places.
They put Dillon Gee, a menace to the Nationals’ offense all season, on the defensive. Shortstop Ian Desmond hit his 16th home run of the season with two outs in the second inning.
On the next pitch, Denard Span hit his first of the season into the right field seats and the Nationals never trailed again.
“He swung at the first pitch,” said manager Davey Johnson. “We about fell over on the bench.”
“It hasn’t taken this long to hit a home run in a while, probably since A-ball,” said Span, who admitted he is a more aggressive hitter in the No. 7 spot than he is when leading off. “It’s been a long season for me offensively and it just felt good to finally get one over the wall and round the bases. My home run trot was definitely a little rusty. I think I stutter-stepped around third. I was just trying not to fall.”
One inning later, Bryce Harper hit a two-run shot to bring in Haren and give the right-hander more than enough cushion.
“(Haren) knows that he’s better than what he was,” said Harper, who laughed and joked with Haren on the bench after his homer.
“He knows that his whole career he’s been so good. He wants to come in here and carve, just like every other pitcher wants to come in here and carve. He’s been doing so great since he came off the DL, and it’s exciting to see that, especially in this late push we’re trying to make. I think that’s a huge step towards what we need.”
Johnson entered his post-game press conference with a grin. He tossed his hands into the air, and smiled some more.
“How about Haren?” he said. “How about that? He was great and still had some left in the tank, too. That was outstanding.”
Haren’s body of work in a Nationals uniform has been largely forgettable for the three-time All-Star. His performance on Saturday, however, rivaled perhaps only one other game this season, a start in which he tossed eight innings against the Braves and allowed just one run on four hits, but he walked four that night. He issued just one free pass to the Mets, and struck out six while the Nationals’ defense did the rest.
Johnson delighted in the idea that perhaps Haren, who has a much more palatable 3.13 ERA since coming off the disabled list on July 8, had found a groove. After a long, trying week, if the 70-year-old manager dared consider the idea of momentum once again, he knew Haren would have to be a part of it.
“I’ve got to have him,” Johnson said. “To be consistent and have win streaks, we’ve got to have them all and throwing the ball well.
“Anyway,” he added. “Time to go to dinner.”