PHILADELPHIA — Dan Haren strode to the mound for the Washington Nationals’ Monday night hoping that it would serve as the final push of the reset button his 2013 season.
His two-week exile on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation he never once truly blamed his issues on, was over. A cortisone shot and rest might’ve helped to free up his shoulder. The time off served to help him rebuild confidence that’d been shot as his ERA skyrocketed in June. He worked on a new, wider grip for his split-fingered fastball.
For the last little push into a fresh start, Haren decided to pull his socks up high despite admitted self-consciousness about his “pretty embarrassing” calves.
“I figured I’d give it a shot,” he said. “I’ve tried everything else.”
What came out in the Nationals’ 3-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, a kind final score that hides the fact that the Nationals were shutout through eight innings by former teammate John Lannan, was mixed results and not a whole lot of conclusions.
The Nationals need Haren to be the guy they expected he was when they signed him to a $13 million deal in the offseason. With Ross Detwiler on the disabled list and Haren just coming off it, the once-certain back-end of their rotation remains a question mark.
While rumors swirl that the Nationals might be poking around for starting pitching, general manager Mike Rizzo said Monday he doesn’t “see any type of big splashy moves” in the team’s immediate future.
Their hope, of course, is that Detwiler will return in the No. 5 spot out of the All-Star break healthy, and that Haren will answer whatever remaining questions there are.
In his final four innings on Monday, he might’ve.
But after the Nationals — who averaged over six runs per game in their previous seven-game homestand — saw a return of their anemic offense against Lannan, a two-run first inning was a hill they weren’t able to climb until it was far too late.
“I put us in the hole early,” Haren said of a first inning that opened with back-to-back base hits, a double steal, featured a run-scoring single that bounced off his left leg and two walks, including one with the bases loaded. “A little bit out of sorts. Walk a couple guys. The ball hit back off me. Just kind of a circus.
“Right out of the gate before I knew it I was in trouble… If I’d minimized that run (that was walked in) right there it’s a lot better and I could’ve went a little bit deeper into the game.”
They made it interesting once Lannan finally came out of the game, after eight scoreless innings and only four hits, by scoring twice of Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth. But Jayson Werth’s potential game-tying three-run homer nestled into Ben Revere’s glove at the wall and a sixth-inning run allowed by Fernando Abad stood as the difference.
“(Werth) hit the heck out of it,” said manager Davey Johnson. “I was hoping. Made a good comeback. We hung in there.”
The end result, however, was negative. And after climbing as close to the Braves as they had since May 20, the Nationals fell back to five games behind the National League East leaders. Their four-game winning streak was snapped.
Johnson said he was pleased with Haren’s start. He liked the high number of fastballs he threw, and the way his revamped splitter, which he began to revert back a bit to his older one toward the end of the outing, came out of his hand. But even Haren wasn’t sure if this start — rocky at the outset, better at the end — could serve as a building block back to the type of pitcher he expects to be.
“It felt pretty much the same,” he said. “I never used my shoulder as an excuse about why I wasn’t doing well or why I was going on the DL. So the time off was alright.
“The walks frustrate me. They always frustrate me. It’s kind of the same story as before I went on the DL. I’ve been able to get strikeouts. That’s not the issue. A few more walks than normal today, but the strikeouts are not the problem. It seems like when they hit the ball it’s a hit… When they’re hitting the ball, it’s falling in.”
That’s exactly what wasn’t happening for the Nationals.
The Nationals have spent the better part of the last two years finding players to fill the role they could’ve had Lannan occupy. This season, his numbers against other teams and a disabled list stint that cost him a substantial chunk of the first half don’t seem to indicate that his absence has been crippling.
But for the second straight start against them, Lannan dominated.
In eight innings, he picked up four strikeouts, three by Ian Desmond alone, and improved his ERA against his former team to 1.38 in two starts. Lannan, who insisted it means nothing more to him to beat the Nationals than it does any other team, has a 5.40 ERA against everyone else.
“Me personally, it was just my own aggressiveness,” Desmond said. “I got myself out. I feel like I just beat my head against the door for three hours.”
“I thought it was vintage Lannan,” Johnson said. “You know him so well, you kind of know how he goes after hitters. Some of the guys, we should’ve had a little better approach, I thought. But I just tip my hat to him, he pitched a heck of a ballgame.”