A step forward from Haren or more of the same?

PHILADELPHIA - With the Nationals dropping the opener of their four-game series with the Phillies last night, the Braves capitalized on the opportunity to put some more space between themselves and Davey Johnson's bunch.

Atlanta scored six times in the 14th inning of its game with the Marlins last night, and with that victory, the Braves pushed their division lead back to five games.

After getting held scoreless and to just four singles by John Lannan, the Nats' slash line against left-handed pitchers this season now sits at .218/.283/.343. That's the lowest in the majors in all three categories.

No bueno.

Davey Johnson said he planned to get Scott Hairston in the starting lineup for at least one game this series, and there's probably a good chance the Nats' newest outfielder will be in there tonight. Not only do the Nats need someone - anyone - who can produce against a southpaw, but Hairston is 12-for-30 with five homers and five doubles in his career against tonight's starter for the Phillies, Cole Hamels.

Bueno.

Who sits if you put Hairston in the lineup? There's no clear answer, but my guess is Denard Span. Johnson could move Bryce Harper to center field and play Hairston in left, or even just put Hairston in center, if he wanted. Hairston might not be the best defensive center fielder, but he has played 149 games at the position in his career.

You might have noticed last night that Dan Haren was going with the high socks look for the first time this season, bringing the pant legs up and pulling his red socks to the knees in an attempt to change his mojo.

"I don't really like to because my calves are pretty embarrassing," Haren said with his typical self-deprecating humor. "I figured I'd give it a shot. I've tried everything else."

Haren didn't exactly tear it up in his return to the Nats rotation last night after a 15-day stint on the disabled list, but he didn't pitch terribly, either. It's hard to get a great read on how Haren threw because he got off to such a rocky start in the first inning, throwing 25 pitches, putting five runners on base and allowing two runs.

Overall, the right-hander overcame the early rust and went five innings allowing just those two runs, a performance that pleased his manager even though Haren hoped he could've given more.

"Obviously, I wish the outcome would be different," Haren said. "I put us in the hole early. A little bit out of sorts. Walk a couple guys, the ball hit back off me. Just kind of a circus. And then after that, it was all right. Not too many hard-hit balls. I made some better pitches as the game went along.

"I wish I would have went longer in the game. But considering how the first inning went and being able to pitch out of that jam, obviously putting up a few zeroes after that, you give your team a chance. But overall I feel good. Excited to take the ball in five days. My stuff feels good and where it needs to be."

Haren had said he felt a bit freer during throwing sessions while on the DL than he had in his last couple starts, but he didn't notice much of a difference last night compared to a his earlier outings.

"It felt pretty much the same," Haren said. "I never use my shoulder as an excuse about why I wasn't doing well or why I was going on the DL. So the time off was all right. It helped me kinda reset my mind and give my body a little bit of time. Felt a little bit better as the game was going on. Today, I definitely felt better about it. And I wish I could have gone another inning or two. My pitch count is probably not where it needs to be."

Haren used the new split-finger grip that he learned from Ryan Mattheus early in the game, in an effort to dial back on the velocity of the pitch and create a greater gap between the splitter and his fastball. But Haren said he went back to his normal split-fingered grip as the game went on, mainly because it's more comfortable for him and it's tough to tinker with new things during a game.

He worked inside to right-handers a bit more yesterday, something that Haren talked about back in spring training but hasn't really done too much of during the regular season. That might be a bit more of a focus for him going forward.

The perplexing thing with Haren continues to be that he's notching plenty of strikeouts (7.7 per nine innings, well up from his last few seasons) and his walk totals are down from his career average (1.65 per nine innings, compared to 1.9 for his career). He's just not getting the results or the breaks, but the Nats will still with him and give him a chance to get on track.

"It's kinda the same story as before I went on the DL," Haren said. "I've been able to get strikeouts. That's not the issue. A few more walks than normal today. But the strikeouts are not the problem. It seems like when they hit the ball it's a hit. As the year has gone on, my strikeouts have always been fine. Pretty much my career. When they're hitting the ball, it's falling in."

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