ATLANTA - If you've read any of Dan Haren's quotes following a start or seen his postgame interviews on MASN, you've probably noticed that Haren is as self-aware and honest a player as you'll find in the majors.
If Haren stinks, he'll tell you he stinks. If he needs to stop messing around and throw more strikes, he'll say so.
Tonight, following his eight-inning gem in a 3-1 Nationals win over the Braves, Haren discussed what went right in his outing while also reflecting on what had gone wrong earlier in the season, when he posted a 7.36 ERA and allowed 32 hits over his first four starts, spanning 18 1/3 innings.
"I feel good. I'm pitching more like myself," Haren said. "That's what it came down to. I told you guys I was kind of overdoing it with fastballs and I just went back to how I pitched in 2011, where I was changing speeds with my cutter, throwing more splits and showing people fastballs here and there. Fastball, getting them off the plate. But overall, Wilson (Ramos) called a really, really good game. I don't think I shook him (off) more than once or twice and it's nice when you get in a rhythm with a catcher like that."
One of Haren's main issues early in the season, he says, was that he was too worried about what the radar gun was reading. After seeing his velocity drop last season and hearing questions all winter about whether he still had enough left in the tank at 32 years old, Haren says he was too focused on rifling his fastball like the other Nats' starters - all of whom work in the mid-to-upper 90s.
"I think that was the problem, is I was trying to be too much like them," Haren said. "I was overthrowing a little bit. I had a little bit of velocity back with my fastball, but I'm not gonna care about velocity anymore. I'm sick of that. It just gives me problems, so I'm just gonna be myself out there, whether it's 88 (mph) 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."
Facing a hot-hitting Braves team and with the Nats looking to salvage a split in this four-game series, Haren knew he needed to step it up and bring his best stuff.
"I felt really confident coming into today," Haren said. "We needed this game. We needed it bad. And we needed yesterday and Jordan (Zimmermann) stepped up, so I wanted to do my part. I'm happy obviously with the way I threw the ball, but I'm happy for the team. We have a good flight to Pittsburgh, everyone with a good feeling going into what's going to be a fun series over there."
Haren had averaged 20.2 pitches per inning over his first four starts of the season. Tonight, he threw 11.25 pitches per frame, which he credits both to his aggressive approach and the Braves' free-swinging ways.
"Just when I thought they weren't gonna swing, they swung," Haren said. "I mean, they started the Tomahawk Chop thing, I think it was the seventh inning, and Freeman swung at the first pitch. Grounded out. Wilson, I went with him a lot on first-pitches because I like to throw first-pitch fastballs just to show 'em and get it over for a strike, but he called a lot of first-pitch cutters. I think he was sensing that they were gonna swing, so he was setting up out there.
"They're such an aggressive team where I was making (the equivalent of) 0-2 pitches earlier in the count. The first pitch of an at-bat, I'd treat it like an 0-2 pitch. A guy like B.J. Upton, he swings a lot first pitch, and he's hit me well in the past. So Wilson, I think he had a real good feel for how they were gonna take their at-bats."
The key moment for Haren tonight came with two outs in the eighth, after Reed Johnson singled with one out, bringing up the tying run. Haren retired Jordan Schafer on a liner to center, and then manager Davey Johnson came out to the mound.
"He was gonna take the ball from me, and I said I felt good against this guy (Chris Johnson)," Haren said. "He let me have him. I had a good plan against him so I want to take the ball against him. When we got to the ninth inning, I was fine with (Rafael) Soriano taking it. But I wanted that guy."
The Nats are now 15-14 on the season after these last two wins, and they're back within 2 1/2 games of the Braves following a pretty slow start.
"Feels good, because we were pretty down after those first two (losses this series)," Haren said. "I think that's as frustrated as we've been this year. When we were 10-11, a lot of people were talking, we could care less. But when we lost first two here, we weren't really concerned, but we wanted to play better. And we needed to win yesterday. And Jordan really stepped up and got that game yesterday. I think we had good momentum coming into today.
"And when we score early and let the pitchers kind of just ease into the game, it's not the end of the world if we give up one or two, I think it's been big for us. In my starts, at least. In the last start that I had against Cincinnati, we scored a couple early and that helped me. Today, we score one and then two in the second and that helped me settle down."