ATLANTA — As Dan Haren worked his way through his first month with the Washington Nationals, his path was not unlike that of his team’s. He could see progress, albeit sometimes small, but he always knew there was more that he had not yet shown.
After they dropped the first two games of their four-game series with the Atlanta Braves this week, the Nationals decided it was time to turn the page. They talked about it amongst themselves. Throw April away, they decided, and move on to May. The calendar was giving them a symbolic way to put their inconsistent opening to the season behind them, so they took it.
On Thursday night, as Haren dominated the Braves in a 3-1 victory that featured eight strong innings from the most veteran pitcher in their rotation, the Nationals won their second consecutive game over Atlanta. They improved to 15-14 on the season, but in May, they’re 2-0.
“We were pretty down after those first two,” Haren said after his finest performance in a Nationals uniform. “I think that’s as frustrated as we’ve been this year. When we were 10-11, a lot of people were talking and we could care less. But when we lost first two here, we weren’t really concerned, but we wanted to play better.
“We needed this game. We needed it bad.”
In trying to get it for them, Haren put together a performance that was far more like that of the pitcher who built a reputation as one of the game’s most reliable and effective, than the one who’d started the season for the Nationals.
“That’s what he’s capable of doing,” said center fielder Denard Span, who was 3-for-4 with two doubles and two RBI. “That’s the three-time All-Star Dan Haren right there.”
Given a 1-0 lead before he took the mound and a 3-0 lead by the time he came out for his second inning of work, Haren peppered the strike zone with his pitches. He praised Wilson Ramos for his game calling, relying on first-pitch cutters and other breaking balls more than Haren might’ve in the past. And they attacked an aggressive Braves lineup by throwing what Haren called “0-2 pitches” at different times in the count.
After six innings, he’d used just 57 pitches. After seven, and including a home run by Dan Uggla that broke up an 18-inning scoreless streak by Nationals pitchers, only 69. In five innings he needed only 12 pitches or less to set down the Braves.
Even he couldn’t believe his efficiency.
“Just when I thought they weren’t going to swing, they swung,” Haren said. “I mean, they started the Tomahawk Chop thing in seventh inning, and (Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman) swung at the first pitch and grounded out… Wilson, I think he had a real good feel for how they were gonna take their at-bats.”
It was the 21st time in Haren’s career that he’d pitched eight or more innings and allowed four hits or fewer. But never in his career had he done that with less than 100 pitches. He needed only 90 Thursday night.
When manager Davey Johnson popped out of the dugout with two outs in the eighth inning and Chris Johnson striding to the plate, it seemed that perhaps Haren wouldn’t get a chance to go the full eight. During his time as the Nationals’ manager, Johnson has rarely, if ever, gone to the mound without pulling his pitcher, and Drew Storen was ready.
Instead, he talked to Haren and Ramos, who lobbied for the pitcher to finish the inning.
“When I got out there I said ‘Heck of a ballgame, how you feeling?’” Johnson said. “He said ‘I feel great.’ I said ‘Good. I’m out of here.’”
“I wanted that guy,” Haren said of Johnson.
He struck Johnson out on four pitches, his fourth and final strikeout of the evening. And just as the Nationals seemed to, with two games played perhaps cleaner and more crisp than any they’ve played this season, Haren’s confidence rose.
“I’m pitching more like myself,” Haren said. “I think I was trying to be too much like (the Nationals’ other four starters). I was overthrowing a little bit. I had a little bit of velocity back with my fastball, but I’m not going to care about velocity anymore. I’m sick of that. It just gives me problems.
“I’m just going to be myself out there, whether it’s 88 or 85 (mph), I don’t really care. I know I can get people out. I challenge hitters and I can spot up, down and away, in, wherever.”
The Nationals have carried themselves confidently through much of the season’s first 29 games, even when their play didn’t always show it. There was more they could do, a higher level they could play at, and they knew they’d reach it with time. When it came to himself, Haren knew it too.
One Rafael Soriano save later, the Nationals were happily packing for their weekend in Pittsburgh and the continuation of this new page on the calendar.
“I feel like April was just one of those months for us,” said right fielder Jayson Werth, who came out in the fifth inning with a tight hamstring. “It’s over. Now we’re in May. Now we can go. Off to a good start in May, hopefully we can build on that.
“Felt like we played pretty good baseball the last couple days. We’ll be all right. We’re starting to come together as a team, too, starting to mesh. We’ve got new guys in here, and those things take time. Chemistry takes time. I feel like it’s starting to happen.”