When you look at the numbers, the about-face really is remarkable.
In his first 15 starts of the season, Dan Haren posted a 6.15 ERA, 1.44 WHIP and was averaging 2.09 home runs per nine innings. He went on the DL with right shoulder inflammation, got a cortisone shot, and took some time to get right mentally.
In his last six starts for the Nationals, Haren has pitched to a 2.43 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and has allowed 0.49 home runs per nine innings.
"This is definitely more like it," Haren said after allowing two runs over seven innings tonight in a win over the Phillies. "I felt really good out there today. Really comfortable. The ball was moving pretty good. And obviously getting all the runs made it pretty easy. It's just kind of unfortunate that it didn't start off like this, but at least I'm showing that's in there."
Haren has continued to use a new split-fingered grip that he learned from Ryan Mattheus, a grip that's allowed him to create more of a variance in the speed of his pitches. That's been a factor in his improved performance, he feels, but location has been the biggest key.
"My split has been really good since coming off the DL, but really it's just keeping the ball down," Haren said. "I really focus on that, trying to keep the ball in the ballpark. I mean, the home runs really burned me all year. Just doing my best to keep the ball down. ...
"On the mound I've been reminding myself pre-pitch to keep the ball down, especially in certain situations where before it seemed like I was getting burned trying to be a little bit too aggressive in the zone so I really was telling myself just if I'm going to miss, miss down and I've been seeing way better results."
So that begs the somewhat harsh question, I guess: Why didn't Haren tell himself to work down in the zone earlier in the season? Why did it take up until June for that to be as much of a focus?
"Yeah that's a good question," Haren said, "but I would be down during the game and then, I don't know, the game would speed up a little bit for me and I would lose focus and then make a mistake up in the zone in a critical spot and I'd get burnt by it. I really just tried to remind myself when we've got a runner on or two runners on, two outs, just trying to miss down in the zone, rather than before when I was just attacking them and attacking them. I've just been a little bit more concerned with location, rather than just concerned with throwing strikes."
With tonight's win over the Phillies, Haren now has a victory over all 30 major league teams, making him just the third active pitcher (joining Barry Zito and A.J. Burnett) and just 13th pitcher ever to join that club.
"It's pretty cool," Haren said. "I saw last time I was facing the Phillies I had seen it. I think it's something to be proud of it. It kind of just shows longevity. I've played for just the right amount of time in both leagues, too. So that plays into it. I've been around for a while and they're the one team I could never beat so I'm sure I'll face them here a couple more times this year and hopefully I can continue."
The DL stint was mentioned to Haren as a turning point, but he again laughed off the implication that he needed time to get right from a health perspective.
"I mean, physically I was fine. Mentally I was pretty messed up," he said. "But baseball is an incredibly humbling game. When you're up, it'll just knock you right down. I couldn't have really gotten much lower than I did when I was on the DL.
"I mean, I was a bad start or two away from getting released probably. That's just the truth of it I think. I definitely feel way better the way I'm pitching now, and this is more me."