Dan Haren threw three innings in a simulated game early on Wednesday afternoon at Nationals Park, facing teammates Chad Tracy, Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi as he tested his arm with 65-70 pitches. The Nationals’ veteran right-hander came away very encouraged by the outing. He could return to the Nationals’ rotation as early as July 9.
“I’m getting the ball to where I usually do,” Haren said. “Before, the last couple games, I’d always long-toss in between starts and before the game, and it was a struggle to get the ball there. So my arm feels, I guess, moving faster. I think it will help the crispness of all the pitches, and hopefully I can execute better, as well.
“(My issues the last few starts) was more a matter of execution than me feeling the shoulder, but the rest helped, and I’m confident I can get back to doing good things. I’ve had good stretches this year for a few games, and I’ve just got to look at those and pitch like I was doing there.”
Haren has been on the disabled list since June 23 with inflammation in his shoulder. He received a cortisone shot in the shoulder to reduce that inflammation on June 24 and has been pleased by the way he’s felt at each subsequent step as he works back to returning to the Nationals’ rotation.
He spent a lot of his time on Wednesday working on his split-fingered fastball and his cut fastball, trying to slow his splitter down a bit so that there is more a difference in speeds between that and his cutter. Changing a pitch or learning a new one is not a simple thing to do, so Haren has been trying to use the time to work through it.
“You can’t just teach yourself a pitch,” he said. “I’ve wanted to throw a changeup for 10 years. I can’t throw a changeup. It’s impossible to just teach yourself a new pitch. I wish it was that easy, but it’s not. So I think refining pitches or tweaking pitches is something easier to do.”
Haren has worked with reliever Ryan Mattheus to try out Mattheus’ splitter grip, which starts with the index and middle fingers spread wider on the ball.
“He said some days it’s good and some days it’s real inconsistent,” said Mattheus, who discovered his grip one day in high school when he was just messing around during a session of catch. “And I said ‘That’s the way mine is so you have one just as good as me.’”
The hitters he faced noticed the improved sharpness on Haren’s pitches.
“He struck me out on a couple splits,” Tracy said, noting that even when he’s faced Haren in past years as opponents it’s always a tough at-bat. “That right there was good stuff…. He looked good. That stuff right there will play in the big leagues any day of the week.”
“He looked completely healthy,” Moore said. “All his stuff was game-ready, for sure. I think he threw one slow (cutter) to me and another one harder that I actually swung and missed on. That’s what’s so good about him, he can throw a hard cutter and then he threw a more slow cutter that’s more slurvy. He was really game ready and it was so hot outside and he still wanted to go back out there and throw some more.”
Taylor Jordan, who took over Haren’s spot in the rotation after he went on the disabled list, will start again on Thursday. But Haren is on track to return to the Nationals’ rotation next week when they face the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.
Last season, Haren went on the disabled list for a back issue and when he came back pitched signficiantly better than before the injury. He is hopeful this season will follow a similar pattern.
“Having a couple bad starts in a row, especially at the end there before I went on the DL, my confidence is definitely shaken, so just take a step back and took a couple days off throwing and try to reset,” he said. “Look at it like this is gonna be the second half of the season and determined to go out there and help the team.
“It was very similar last year where I could’ve kept pitching, but they wanted me to kind of take a step back and get healthy and I did and the rest of the season went good. So obviously we’re hoping for that. I’m still very confident in myself. I feel like I can get guys out and help the team.”