VIERA, Fla. — This is where Dan Haren wanted to be.
As warm wind rippled flags and carried the smart-mouthed bellows of a beer vendor, the Washington Nationals veteran stood on the mound at Space Coast Stadium on Tuesday afternoon and felt tired.
Not so fatigued that he’d drop to the dirt and provide another target for the sea gulls and crows gliding around the palm trees and half-full blue seats. No, Haren simply wanted a long inning to continue to build strength in his right arm in his second spring start. Endurance, he believes, comes from pushing through such situations.
“In spring training, if you do good, you feel great,” said Haren, who allowed one run and two hits over three innings as the Nationals beat the Houston Astros, 7-1. “If you do bad, you’re just working on stuff.”
The extra work, even a few pitches Tuesday against the Houston Astros, means more to Haren this spring with twice-daily visits to the training room and a routine designed to avoid repeating his injury-riddled 2012 campaign.
He managed to pitch through the maladies for 176 2/3 innings, but the Los Angeles Angels declined his option and he signed a one-year, $13 million deal with the Nationals to rebuild his value. He brings the upside of an ace, when healthy, to the back end of the rotation.
“I try not to dwell too much on the results of spring training because I don’t want to get too high or too low,” Haren said. “If I strike out 10 guys, great. What does it get me?”
The third and final inning of his start provided the test he sought after retiring the first six batters so quickly that the stroller-pushing families and businessmen skipping out of work early had barely settled into their seats. The Astros’ light-hitting lineup managed two singles — Jose Altuve smacked one front-door cutter into left field to bring home the lone run — and a walk that frustrated Haren. He escaped the jam by coaxing Chris Carter to pop out to shortstop Ian Desmond.
If not for the extra pitches, manager Davey Johnson said, Haren would’ve gone back out for a fourth inning.
“I liked what I saw,” Johnson said.
Such is the nature of spring training, during which players like Haren are put in the unusual position of talking about needing a long inning, talk you’d never hear during the regular season.
“I was just working on things in the third inning,” Haren said.
He laughed again.
The extra work — Haren threw 50 pitches in the outing, 37 for strikes — gave him the chance to throw out of the stretch and continue to focus on pitching inside to right-handers. Haren kept his repertoire simple: fastballs and cutters that forced the Astros into a series of off-balance, awkward swings. He mixed in one curveball and a handful of split-fingered fastballs. That’s a pitch he expects to focus on in his next start.
Those split-fingered fastballs stuck in Haren’s mind. The location needs work. So does the count he throws them in.
That can come another day. Haren was content with the dose of extra work on the sun-soaked afternoon.
“If I get through spring healthy,” Haren said, “that’s the most important thing.”