At 2 p.m. today, Dan Haren stepped on the mound at Nationals Park and started firing away as a rotation of hitters took their hacks.
It was just a simulated game against three hitters with whom he shares a clubhouse - Chad Tracy, Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi - but it was yet another step in the right direction for Haren, who has been on the disabled list the last 10 days with right shoulder inflammation.
Haren threw 65-70 pitches split up over three simulated innings, with a couple of minute breaks in-between each frame. The heat made things a little tough on Haren, who joked that he was still pouring sweat even a half-hour after the mound session when talking to reporters, but he sensed a clear difference in how he felt today compared to how he felt in his last few starts before landing on the DL.
"Yeah I could. Just the way the ball comes out," Haren said. "Just a little bit easier to get my arm up. Long-tossing, I'm getting the ball to where I usually do. Before the last couple games, I'd always long-toss in between starts and before the game, and it was a struggle to get the ball there. So my arm feels, I guess, (like it's) moving faster. I think it will help the crispness of all the pitches, and hopefully I can execute better, as well."
Manager Davey Johnson, general manager Mike Rizzo and pitching coach Steve McCatty were on hand to watch Haren throw, and they liked what they saw. Assuming all goes well over the next handful of days, it appears that Haren will slot back into the Nats' rotation next Tuesday, July 9, the day after he's eligible to come off the DL.
"I think the big thing, today his ball had life, and the sharpness of the cutter and the curveball, which I didn't see that prior to that," Johnson said. "That tells me you're feeling better, your arm is feeling good. You could be a little tight or what before and roll your cutter, but this one kind of had tilt, which was good."
Haren thought his cutter had more tilt to it today, and he said his curve has felt a lot better lately, as well. Another big change has been that Haren has been experimenting with a new grip for his splitter, one that he learned from reliever Ryan Mattheus.
Haren feels like there wasn't enough of a gap in velocity between his pitches, with his fastball sitting around 89-90 mph and his splitter sitting at 85 mph, so he experimented with more of a cross-seam grip on the splitter in an effort to take some velocity off and make it tougher to read that pitch.
"Just all the pitches were really grouped together," Haren said. "The last game, I actually started throwing more curveballs just to get a bigger gap. They were just all kinda clumping together. My cutter's been a little harder this year where I've been trying to back it off a little bit and then trying to slow down my split a little bit to create some different velocities in there, rather than everything hovering around the same.
"My split definitely felt good (today). I got good reactions from the hitters when I was slowing it down and making it a little bit bigger."
Tracy, for what it's worth, said what he saw today from Haren really impressed him, especially with the new splitter.
"That stuff right there will play any day in the big leagues," Tracy said.
Beyond the issues with his shoulder and his stuff, Haren was also able to focus on the mental side of things over the last week and a half, something that he admits needed work.
"Having a couple bad starts in a row, especially at the end there before I went on the DL, my confidence (was) definitely shaken," Haren said. "So just take a step back and took a couple days off throwing and try to reset. Look at it like this is gonna be the second half of the season and determined to go out there and help the team."
It's no secret that Haren has struggled mightily this season, posting a 6.15 ERA, 1.439 WHIP and having allowed 19 homers in just 82 innings. But he sees similarities between this season and his 2012 campaign, when he landed on the DL for the first time in his career.
Prior to that DL stint last season, Haren had a 4.86 ERA and was allowing a .297/.33/.484 slash line from opposing hitters. After he got a back injury cleared up, Haren pitched to a 3.58 ERA over his final 13 starts, with an opposing slash line of .243/.282/.432.
"I really struggled early in the season, went on the DL around the All-Star break and then came back and threw the ball really well," Haren said. "And it was very similar last year where I could've kept pitching, but they wanted me to kinda take a step back and get healthy and I did and the rest of the season went good. So obviously we're hoping for that.
"I'm still very confident in myself. I feel like I can get guys out and help the team."