The Washington Times - March 21, 2013, 06:12PM

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Six days ago, Dan Haren couldn’t find enough negative adjectives to describe his performance against the St. Louis Cardinals. He wasn’t comfortable, didn’t feel right and certainly wasn’t pleased with the results. 

Thursday night, Haren took the mound at Champions Stadium and tried to put that outing out of his mind. He still found fault with some of the things he did — walking a batter, giving up an 0-2 hit, too many three-ball counts — but the difference in his evaluation, and his performance, was clear.

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“I felt a thousand times better,” Haren said. “It was nice feeling normal again.”

Haren allowed four runs on eight hits and a walk with five strikeouts on Thursday night in the Nationals’ 4-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves. He pitched 5 1/3 innings, was able to get his pitch count to 90 and had his velocity back into his usual 86-90 mph range.

He struggled in a three-run second inning, and then surrendered a monster home run to Justin Upton to open the sixth, but that ended a string of 10 consecutive batters who’d been retired by the right-hander.

“I thought he threw the ball really well,” said manager Davey Johnson. “He had a good feeling and made a lot of quality pitches. GOod outing.

“I was more aggressive in the zone,” Haren said. “I gave up eight hits, but I felt like, besides the ball that hasn’t landed that Upton hit, that it wasn’t like I was getting smoked all over the yard. Definitely room for improvement but a step in the right direction for me.”

There may have been a number of factors that played into Haren’s improved comfort level.

The game was a night game, something of a rarity during spring training but the time of day most major leaguers are accustomed to doing their work. It was also just about an hour’s drive from the Nationals’ complex in Viera, one of the shorter treks for the team that is largely alone in its corner of Florida. 

There were also the mechanical adjustments he made.

After the three-run second inning, Haren altered the grip on his split-fingered fastball. He moved his fingers a bit further apart, “got a little bit wider,” as he put it, and immediately noticed the change in the reactions from hitters.

“My split has just been not good,” Haren said. “The last couple starts, I haven’t been getting any strikeouts with it at all. Hitters have been taking it… I’ll take (the success I had Thursday) into the next start. 

“Just getting bad swings from hitters, I think it just kind of tells me that my stuff is better. Last time it was like I needed an ‘L’ screen out there. It was scary. This time I was getting way better swings and you could tell a lot by the reaction of hitters. There was more broken bats and stuff like that. That’s my game.”

The monotony of spring training has a tendency to wear on everyone, particularly as the highly-anticipated regular season approaches. Haren admitted he was no exception to that rule. While he’ll get one more Grapefruit League start, he feels ready to go.

“I wish I would’ve ended this outing better,” he said, having been pulled from the game after allowing the home run and two one-out singles. “I would’ve felt a bit better about it, but I could go into the season now… At the beginning of this game, it kind of felt more normal, with a night game. This is a nice place to play, too, so it got my adrenaline going. 

“There’s checkpoints that you’ve got to hit. I think pitching under the lights is a lot (more fun). I’m ready for the season, for sure.”