Change in grip on splitter has Haren more hopeful

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - After getting knocked around in his last two starts, all right-hander Dan Haren wanted was some progress, some incremental achievement to show he could still be effective. Tonight at Champion Stadium against the Braves, he weathered a one-inning blip, set down 10 straight hitters and wasn't happy with his his outing ended.

After getting an assortment of bad swings and weak grounders one time through the order, Haren allowed a tape-measure homer to Jason Heyward that may still be airborne. He got an out, allowed two more singles and his night was done.

"I was kind of frustrated with the way it finished," he admitted after tossing 5 1/3 innings, yielding four runs on eight hits, walking one and striking out five.

After Atlanta's three-run second, Haren made an in-game adjustment, changing the grip on his split-fingered fastball. The improvement was noticeable, and carried him through until Heyward's blast made it 4-0.

"Overall, it was obviously a lot better," he said. "I felt a thousand times better."

Haren has been refreshingly blunt in his self-criticism while he was struggling through a dead arm period, so there's no reason not to believe he may have turned a corner.

"I just changed the grip with my split a little bit," he explained. "I got a little wider, got way better looks from the hitters on it - a few swings and misses, I got a bunch of strikeouts there in the middle innings. They were super-aggressive toward the latter innings. You know, the first-pitch home run. But in general, they were swinging early and I was able to get in a groove there. It was an improvement from last time, for sure."

Haren said his split hasn't been effective over the past couple of starts, with hitters routinely watching it for a ball. He still wants to cut down on the three-ball counts, and do a better job of putting away hitters with two strikes, but that will come once he throws more strikes.

He didn't need to throw curveballs since the Braves only had two lefties in the lineup. Haren relied on fastballs and cutters, mixing in the splitter. Even though the line might not have been pretty, the feeling was much better.

"It was nice to feel normal again," Haren said.

He could even poke fun at himself for the mammoth Heyward homer, saying, "besides the ball that hasn't landed, it wasn't like I was getting smoked all over the yard."

"There's obviously room for improvement, but it's definitely a step in the right direction for me," Haren added.

The weak grounders and bad swings told a lot more than the eight hits he surrendered.

"Just getting bad swings from hitters just kind of tells me my stuff is better," he said. "Last time, I needed an L-screen out there. It was scary. But this time I was getting way better swings and you can tell a lot by the reactions from hitters."

Manager Davey Johnson was pleased.

"Good outing," he said. "He just got a little better feel and made better pitches. Used his off-speed stuff more. He can pitch on both sides of the plate, he's got the ball moving, sinking. He didn't throw that many splitters, but he's a tough guy to hit off of."

Haren wasn't the only Nationals pitcher who may have figured something out against the Braves. Reliever Drew Storen struck out one in a scoreless eighth inning and Johnson said he was pleased with the right-hander's quicker rhythm.

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