The moment Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson popped out of the dugout he was greeted with the approval of the thousands who packed Nationals Park on this sunny summer afternoon. His task, they knew, was to remove Dan Haren from a game that was already out of hand in the fourth inning.
Haren did as his manager asked and handed over the ball. His head bowed, he began the long walk from the mound back to the Nationals’ dugout. Boos rained down on him until he’d disappeared from view, and the scene raised the question of when the Nationals’ $13 million free agent would take the mound next.
A season in which Haren has toggled between decent and deplorable may have reached its nadir in the Nationals’ 7-1 loss to the Colorado Rockies on Saturday that snapped the team’s three-game winning streak and dropped them back to .500.
“I don’t want to speculate on what I’m thinking about right here, but we have some concerns,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if there’s some physical problems, but when he throws his side (session), I’m going to talk with him and see if we can’t come up with something that could help him.”
Two batters into the game, Haren surrendered his major league-leading 19th home run, a 1-0 cutter off the bat of DJ LeMahieu that just cleared the left field fence. Six batters in, after allowing the first major league hit to Rockies right fielder Corey Dickerson, Haren had the Nationals down 3-0.
Haren did set down seven batters in a row after Dickerson’s double, but the fourth inning opened with a single, a double and a one-out hit-batter. Four pitches later, after giving up an RBI-single to Rockies pitcher Jhoulys Chacin, Haren’s day was over.
“That’s what’s so perplexing,” Haren said. “I’ll have spurts where it almost seems easy and then there’s spurts where I can’t get anybody out. I wish I had more answers. I’ve searched. I’ve done video, I’ve changed the way I pitch, I’ve gone back to old ways, new ways. I’ve tried a lot of stuff. At this point it’s just still searching for way to get better.
Haren is a three-time All-Star, and a guy who twice finished in the Top 10 in Cy Young voting. He led the major leagues in strikeout-to-walk ratio three times and he was traded three times as the centerpiece of some big-name packages. He was a very, very good pitcher for a very long time.
After Saturday’s start, Haren has a 6.15 ERA — the worst mark among qualified starters in the major leagues and almost 2½ runs higher than his career mark entering the season. Opponents have an .888 on-base plus slugging percentage against him, and only Joe Blanton from the Los Angeles Angels is worse in that category.
Haren has allowed 20 earned runs in his last 18 1/3 innings pitched.
The same pitcher whose history includes so much success and all of the aforementioned accolades admitted Saturday he’d “be lying if I said I haven’t thought about it,” when asked if he was concerned about losing his spot in the Nationals’ rotation.
The Nationals, whose punchless offense did nothing to save Haren from his ninth loss of the season, are 0-8 in games that he starts since May 14, and 16-12 when he doesn’t.
Ross Ohlendorf, perhaps a candidate to start if the Nationals decide Haren cannot, pitched 4 2/3 innings of relief. And, outside of allowing an inherited runner to score, gave up just a solo home run to Nolan Arenado in the eighth.
“It’s a performance-based business and obviously I’m not getting the job done,” Haren said.
“No one wants to be booed. I’d probably boo myself, too. I’m not doing well and the fans have a right to express how they feel. I wish I could perform better for them.”
Unfortunately for the Nationals, figuring out what is at the root of Haren’s issues has proven difficult. His inconsistency is maddening, but so too is how his ability to be the kind of pitcher he has been in the past comes and goes little warning.
“He’ll throw some pitches, guys miss them by two feet, and then he turns around and gets one blasted. He’s kind of searching for it,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche. “We’re all looking, trying to see if we can see anything, if he’s tipping a pitch or falling into patterns. I don’t see any of that. Right now, I think it’s just bad luck. He cannot miss up in the zone or it’s getting smoked.”
“When I take the ball that day I feel good, I feel like I’m going to win,” Haren said. “But after the last several starts it’s hard to remain confident in-between, that’s for sure. I’ve never gone through this stuff in my career.”
Perhaps most damaging for the Nationals as a whole is the fact that three of Haren’s last four starts have come in games after the Nationals won. In a season in which momentum has been difficult to generate, and fleeting when it seems to appear, those starts have been daggers to the their attempts to get on a roll. Saturday they had their longest winning streak since May 10 unceremoniously snapped.
Johnson mentioned the team may consider skipping the right-hander’s next start, but preferred to hold off on any decisions until after he watches Haren throw his bullpen session on Monday. He has maintained his faith in Haren, given his track record, and stayed the course in that regard on Saturday.
“I think it’s still there,” Johnson said. “I’ve seen him pitch some great games, but he’s a competitor and there might be something bothering him that I don’t know about… Like I said, I want to talk to him and I want to watch his side and we’ll go from there.”