When the Nationals take the field around 7:05 p.m. tonight aiming for a sweep of the White Sox, they'll give the ball to Dan Haren, their 32-year-old right-hander, who will be making his Nationals Park debut.
Haren got smacked around pretty good in his first start as a National last Friday against the Reds, allowing six runs on nine hits over just four innings. The veteran righty served up a whopping four home runs, although two of them just cleared the Great American Ballpark fence and looked like they might have even been interfered with by fans.
It clearly wasn't a strong outing from Haren; there's no arguing that. But it was just one outing. If Haren turns in that performance on June 16, for example, it's likely brushed off as just a rough start. When that performance comes during Haren's Nats debut and follows a spring in which his ERA was on the wrong side of 6.00, it gets a lot of attention.
Searching for a fresh take on the Nats' fourth starter, I talked with pitching coach Steve McCatty for a few minutes yesterday, trying to get his perspective on Haren's spring and rocky Nationals debut. McCatty singled out a few factors that he feels played a key role in Haren's subpar results in Cincinnati.
"One thing I knew going in - he had nine days off (since his previous start)," McCatty said. "So he was going to be strong and command was going to struggle. He didn't get balls to the place that he wanted to, and in that ballpark (that's trouble). They hit a bunch of home runs, but only two of them were really, you know, hit. The other balls might've been a double or something like that. It's a tough ballpark to pitch in.
"First time out, nine days off, you're trying to do what the other (starters) did. He might've been pushing himself a little more to do more than he was capable of doing at that time."
Haren will have to deal with working on extra rest in tonight's start, as well. He comes into this outing on five days' rest because of Monday's off-day.
Pitchers are used to throwing on four days of rest. That's how the schedule is aligned during spring training and that's how it plays out the bulk of the time during the regular season, as well. But with all the off-days early in the season, pitchers often get stuck working on more than normal rest, which can be a major adjustment for some guys.
"I keep telling everybody, and it's like, 'Oh, that sounds like an excuse,' " McCatty said. "But if you're used to being regimented, and that's the way they all are, when you're on that every fifth day and getting used to it, even after spring training, you're used to doing something, it becomes ingrained to you. So when it's not on that day, you feel too strong, you feel too good. And then you get out of whack.
"So during the season, I'm sure he's going to get more comfortable as we go, getting on a more regular schedule and be on that fifth day quite a bit. He's going to do fine. I think he's going to do well."
That concept of feeling "too strong" or "too good" might seem counterintuitive. Some might wonder how having too much arm strength or feeling too rested can be a negative.
It boils down to a pitcher having more life in his arm than he's used to, which leads to overthrowing and often a loss of control. Four-seam fastballs get pulled out of the zone or to the wrong location. Breaking pitches get bounced. Pitchers put too much on sinkers, throwing through the break and leaving the ball over the heart of the plate. That's obviously all a bigger issue with pitchers who rely on control, like Haren, as compared to power pitchers, who sometimes can let their raw stuff carry them through starts where they're feeling too strong.
"People don't understand," McCatty said. "You feel good. But when you feel strong, you tend to overthrow, and mechanically, you fly open. And (Haren) turns a lot anyways. And then when you fly open more, your elbow drops and the ball tends to elevate, and that's what happens. For pitchers, (their start has) got to be that on the fifth day or the sixth day. It gets longer than that, you're really in trouble. Especially six days. I never liked it. I would always try to run more or shag (flies) more or whatever just to burn off some energy.
"So it's not just a bunch of crap to sound like an excuse. When you're regimented like that, you need to be on that fourth day. It's something that you really crave, because when you don't get it, it's like, 'Man, I feel too good.' You get more amped up. And that's not the way you want to pitch, to be more amped up. You always want to be under control."
McCatty saw the numbers that Haren put up in spring, but like everyone else within the organization, he throws those out the window, knowing that Haren was tinkering with things, trying to fine-tune his stuff. The Nats pitching coach says he saw what he needed to from Haren in spring - a fastball that sat in the 89-91 mph range, a good splitter and a good cutter - and is confident Haren will deliver.
"I think he's going to be fine," McCatty said. "It's just trusting himself. He's a proven, veteran big league pitcher, so just getting out there and getting accustomed to the situation, not worried about doing more than he's capable of doing - which is pretty good. And just kind of relax a little bit.
"Everybody tries to push (in his situation). Signing a contract, coming over and you want to fit in and show everybody you belong. So sometimes you tend to try and overthrow a little more. And especially with the nine days off, that's something that hurt him."