Starting pitchers often talk about momentum carrying over from day to day. One guy in the rotation has a fantastic outing and the guy taking the ball the next night strives to be even better.
The Washington Nationals weren't asking that much of Dan Haren heading into Saturday afternoon's game against the Cincinnati Reds. For one thing, anticipating a third consecutive one-hit performance is unreasonable against any team, let alone a playoff-caliber opponent. For another, there was no reason to set the bar quite that high for Haren.
Off to the worst start of any member of Washington's rotation, beginning with a brutal drubbing at Cincinnati in his Nats debut, Haren is just trying to work his way back to being the pitcher his new employers expected – and that isn't a guns-blazing, one-hitter kind of guy.
Saturday, the old Haren was more in evidence. He kept a scuffling Reds lineup off balance throughout a season-best six-inning performance, leading the Nats to a 6-3 win and at last feeling like a real contributor.
"It [stinks] it's taken so long to have a good outing, but I finally feel like part of the team," Haren said. "I've got to be like this or better the rest of the year. There's no excuse for me not to be."
At least five years older than everyone else in the Nats' rotation, the 32-year-old Haren knows better than most in the Washington clubhouse that every season ebbs and flows. It's just that the ebbs are a bit more glaring when they come right off the top.
Not that the Nats, now 13-11 on the season, have been tearing it up as a whole, but Haren has lagged behind the rest of the rotation from the first time he took the ball. He gave up a relatively mild six runs in the 15-0 beating the Reds administered in his first start of the season, but no one wants to leave that type of first impression.
Haren has gradually worked his way back toward his usual form since then, his ERA dropping each time out as he allowed three earned runs each of his next three starts before surrendering two Saturday afternoon to land at 6.29. Incremental improvement, to be sure – and there's no magic behind it.
"It's really not as much different as people would think," he said. "I didn't make any drastic change to delivery or what I'm throwing. My split was good. I got a few strikeouts. A couple good double plays."
The first of those, started by Anthony Rendon at third base, ended the second inning. The second, a 6-4-3 in the sixth on Haren's 88th and final pitch, capped a key defensive sequence.
Shin-Soo Choo had led off the sixth inning with a homer to right-center, one of very few hard-hit balls the Reds managed off Haren. Zack Cozart followed with a single, prompting Zach Duke to pick up the tempo in the Washington bullpen. Joey Votto then drove a ball deep into the gap in left-center, and Denard Span took off to his right.
The center fielder raced to the wall, leaped, and snagged a drive that didn't quite look headed over the fence but that easily would have been extra bases.
"I was already playing deep, I was respecting his power," Span said. "I'm not sure if the ball would have went over, but I was prepared to bring it back if it did go out."
Haren then got Brandon Phillips to hit into the inning-ending double play and the only threat mounted by Cincinnati while the starter was in the game had been extinguished.
After a shaky seventh inning in which Tyler Clippard was bailed out by an even more impressive Span effort, the Nats managed to put the Reds away behind Drew Storen and Rafael Soriano to save Haren's second victory of the season.
Not as impressive statistically or aesthetically as the twin one-hitters turned in by Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann the previous two evenings, but important for Haren as he settles in with his fifth major league team.
"Some other guys have started out with a couple bad ones and come back and he needed the same thing," said Washington manager Davey Johnson. "That club is a good hitting club. And you've got to make pitches. He made good pitches. I was impressed. That's a good start."
Good enough to serve as a building block going forward, for sure. And don't discount the boost an early offensive outburst provided Saturday.
Haren drove in the first run of the game himself with a second-inning cue shot to right, and by the end of the third he was working with a 4-0 lead. After the Reds broke through for a run with a Votto double and Phillips single in the fourth, Bryce Harper answered with a two-run homer in the bottom of the inning.
That rocket into the Nats bullpen gave Harper nine homers and 18 RBI in April, both team records for the season's first month. Haren, like everyone else in the clubhouse, merely shakes his head in amazement at his precocious teammate's abilities.
Throughout a big-league run that began in 2003, the right-hander hasn't often been the type to leave mouths agape. But he has made a career out of reliability, and he has inched back in that direction through the course of his five starts this year.
"My confidence has been building ever since the first game, getting pounded in Cincinnati," Haren said. "From then on, my confidence has gotten better and better, more and more. Today, I know I'll feel good coming into the next start. When I took the ball today, I felt like I was going to win."
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