PHOENIX - The Joel Hanrahan that sat at a table on Monday and talked about the pitching philosophy that got him to his first All-Star Game is not the Joel Hanrahan that gained and lost the Nationals' closer's job, over and over again, in 2009. Even Hanrahan would acknowledge that now.
That season, Hanrahan was locked in a kind of endless dance with his doubts. He was thrust into the closer's role with no competition and next to no experience, and spent much of the spring pitching in the World Baseball Classic. And, as the Nationals' bullpen blew more games than it saved in the first two months of the year and pitchers all around him got sent to the minors, Hanrahan wondered when it would be his turn.
"We weren't winning a lot of games, so I put so much pressure on myself to be perfect," Hanrahan said. "It was tough for me to go to the park sometimes. I would sit at my locker, wondering like, 'All right, we just sent down three guys. How am I still here? What's next? Am I going to get sent down tomorrow? Am I going to get released tomorrow? When's my day coming?' I couldn't come up from that."
By the time he got traded from the Nationals to the Pittsburgh Pirates at the end of June, he had pretty much run out of rope in Washington. And while the Nationals included him in a four-player deal to get something of value for him, it might have been Hanrahan who got the most from the trade.
Given a fresh start, without the pressure of closing, he posted a 1.72 ERA in his final 33 appearances of 2009. He pitched in 72 games last year, and this season, when he got the closer's job back, he was ready for it.
He's saved 26 games for the surprising Pirates, walked just eight batters in 40 1/3 innings and pitched his way onto his first All-Star team. And the way he's pitching is what many in the Nationals organization were clamoring for him to do in 2009.
After throwing his slider 34.3 percent of the time in 2009 and 38.7 percent of the time in 2010, he has almost ditched the pitch that seemed to get him in trouble in Washington more than it got him out of it. He's only throwing sliders 15.3 percent of the time this year, mostly relying on his fastball and trusting it to get him more outs than hitters will get hits off it. And as he's thrown it more (84.7 percent), he's also thrown it harder than he ever did in Washington; he's averaging 97.3 mph with the pitch this year.
He's getting ground balls more than twice as often as fly balls this year, and hitters are batting just .259 off him when they put it in play.
"I'm not worried if they put the ball in play," Hanrahan said. "I feel like if you make your pitch, you have a 70 percent chance to get them out. That's pretty good odds."
In 2009, Hanrahan led a bullpen that, by the end of the season, was completely different than it was on opening day. In many ways, manager Manny Acta paid for the bulplen's failures with his job, when he was fired two weeks after Hanrahan was traded. Now, two years later, they're both at the All-Star Game, having thrived with new opportunities.
"Hanrahan always had the stuff to do what he's doing right now," Acta said. "I'm glad that he's able to put it together. When everything started in D.C., we had just made the conversion with him from the starting rotation to the bullpen. It takes a while for guys to develop into that. But it's always been there. I'm proud of him - we played them the other day, and I talked to him. He deserves it."
And in Hanrahan's mind, he got here because he got out of a bad situation with the Nationals.
"It's hard to say (if this could have happened in Washington)," Hanrahan said. "At that point, probably not. The next year, I could have come back, but at that point, being there was draining. That year was tough. I just needed to get out."