ST. LOUIS - Dan Haren is one of the most self-aware pitchers you’ll find in the major leagues.
He knows what he was brought to D.C. to do. He knows that largely, he hasn’t done it. And despite his solid performance since coming off the disabled list in early July, Haren isn’t going to try and color his 2013 season in favorable terms. When asked how he views his year with the Nationals, Haren, as always, is blunt.
“Obviously not a success,” Haren said during a lengthy interview in the Nats’ dugout yesterday.
Over his first 15 starts as a National, Haren pitched to a bloated 6.15 ERA, one of the worst marks in baseball in that time. He worked into the seventh inning just three times in those 15 starts and allowed a whopping 19 homers, the most of any pitcher in the majors to that point in the season.
For Haren, an 11-year veteran who had won 119 games and posted a 3.66 ERA in his career coming into this season, this stretch represented the lowest of lows. Used to getting confused swings and weak contact, Haren was seeing his pitches get turned around and sent into the outfield with alarming velocity. He was making too many mistakes up in the zone, and they were getting punished.
“I started off OK and then I just went through one of the biggest ruts of my career. And I just couldn’t get out of it,” Haren said. “I was trying so hard, maybe trying too hard. But there was just nothing I could do. I felt more terrible about it than anybody. Of course I wanted to be contributing to the team, and it just wasn’t happening.”
Haren took the struggles hard. He did his best to shield himself from all the negativity that comes with a slow start after joining a new organization, but it didn’t work. He heard the criticism coming from the outside, but that wasn’t the toughest part.
“The lowest parts were just I’ve never had so much self-doubt,” Haren said. “And as much as I would talk myself into feeling good about my next start, your numbers are right in your face. Before you take the mound every game, those numbers are put on the scoreboard. So I could not get away from those. I beat myself up about it. ...
“It was also really difficult for me, just being so far from home (in California), not really having anyone out there. No family, not really many friends. I was trying to make new friends. So a lot of my time was spent alone. I was thinking a lot about baseball, and I was taking the games home with me, thinking about it, and it was really eating me up inside. The tough starts were even harder on me because I was there just left thinking about it.
“(I’d) try to believe in myself and try to tell myself things were going to get better. But when it doesn’t happen for you time after time after time, of course there’s a lot of self-doubt, and I wondered if I could ever compete at this level again.”
Haren’s teammates did the best they could to try and boost his spirits and keep him in a positive frame of mind. They tried to make him feel a part of the team, and he says now that he appreciates his teammates’ support during that time, but in a weird way, he felt he wasn’t worthy of it.
“The more bad starts you have, the less you want to be at the field,” Haren said. “I was embarrassed, really. That’s what it came down to. I was embarrassed with my performance, and when I would have a bad game, I would just want the next game to happen, just so people would think about that game, not my game. It was tough.”
On June 25, after a talk with general manager Mike Rizzo in which both men agreed that a break was necessary, Haren was placed on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation. Even at the time, Haren was blunt about the fact that his stint on the DL was more about giving him a chance to heal mentally than anything physical.
He came back from his 15 days on the DL determined to make fewer mistakes up in the zone, and since that point, Haren has posted a solid 3.57 ERA. He’s gone 5-5 in his 14 starts off the DL, has allowed just nine homers in 80 2/3 innings, and has held opposing batters to a .234 batting average.
“With the exception of I think two starts, everything’s been pretty good,” Haren said. “I’ve pitched more like I was brought in here to pitch. But that said, the first 13 or 14 starts really weren’t good, and there’s a reason the team is in the situation it’s in now.”
The last sentence is typical Haren - brutally honest and self-deprecating. For half the season, Haren has pitched pretty well, at about his career norms. But it’s the first half of the season that still bothers him today, even though he was just one of five starting pitchers and the Nats had other major issues.
Asked why that is that he puts so much of the Nats’ failures on himself, Haren cites his own personal expectations and goals.
“I put a lot of blame on myself just because of what I expect out of myself,” Haren said. “There’s other guys that had up and down years, but not so drastic. I wasn’t giving us a chance. We would win a few games in a row and then I would pitch and we would lose that momentum. I said it all year - I wasn’t able to maintain momentum of the front three starters, and I feel bad about that.”
Despite all the personal and team struggles, Haren seems to have really enjoyed his time with the Nationals. Of late, he can be found joking around with teammates on a daily basis, his dry sense of humor not just cracking up those in the pitchers’ corner of the clubhouse, but Bryce Harper and Adam LaRoche and Steve McCatty and others that he encounters.
While Haren didn’t feel like part of the team early on, he sure seems like a big part of it these days, both on and off the field.
“I had a lot of fun this year, especially the last two or three months,” Haren said. “We made a run. We came up short, but I think we bonded as a unit, 25 guys. I think that really showed in the clubhouse and on the field. What happens next year, I don’t know.”
Ah yes, next year. Haren’s one-year, $13 million deal will be up after the Nats finish off their 2013 season, putting the 33-year-old back on the free agent market. Only this time, he knows things will be a bit different than they were a year ago.
“Look, I’m a realist,” Haren says. “I understand that last year I had an unbelievable track record. I basically could’ve picked where I wanted to play this offseason. I picked the Nationals because I thought that was my best chance to win a World Series. There were other teams out there that were offering more money and more years, but I wanted to come to Washington.
“This offseason will obviously be different. I’m not going to have teams breaking down my door, and I might not be able to pick where I want to play. As much as I’ve made it known that I love the West Coast, well, yeah, if you have a great year, you can pick anywhere you want to play. But in my case, it’s not gonna be like that. It’s not gonna be as easy to get a job.”
After his last start, Haren commented that he doesn’t expect to be back with the Nats next season, and it’s largely expected that Rizzo will look elsewhere when it comes to filling out the back-end of the Nats’ rotation, either through internal means or another new acquisition.
But Haren isn’t ruling out the option of returning to D.C. Should Rizzo be impressed enough with what he’s seen over the last few months and offer Haren another one-year deal at a much lower price, Haren says he’ll listen.
“Obviously we’re built to win,” Haren said. “I would absolutely love to be a part of this organization going forward, but ultimately, that’s not up to me. Pretty soon, here we’ll get into the offseason, and we’ll see where things go.”
One thing is clear in Haren’s mind now, even if it wasn’t a few months ago: he wants to keep pitching in 2014. Despite the lows that left him wanting to avoid the baseball field at all costs, despite the feeling of embarrassment, the feeling that he was letting his teammates, the front office and the fan base down, Haren is convinced that he isn’t done with baseball yet.
“As tough as things were this year, obviously thoughts crept into my mind about how much longer I want to play, but I still really love the game,” Haren said. “I love coming to the field. Especially these last few months have kind of reinvigorated me and kind of reminded me how much I love the game. And I love getting ready for the season. I love working out, throwing programs. It’s what I’ve done for my whole life.
“I still feel like I have enough left to definitely help the team. And I’ve showed what I can do over the last three or four months. That’s more what I expect out of myself. I definitely want to continue playing, whether it be another year or two or three. I don’t know. But I’m going into this offseason with the mindset of playing next year.”
For now, Haren has one start left this season, this Saturday against the Diamondbacks. Then his rough 2013 will come to an end, and his uncertain future will begin.