|Photo by USA Today|
In an overall inconsistent staff through the season’s first month, there was no question offseason acquisition Dan Haren was the weakest link. His ERA was over 7.00 entering Saturday’s game and he had yet to get an out in the sixth inning of a start.
So after his strong outing in the Nats’ 6-3 win against the Reds, their third straight victory, Haren didn’t just feel relieved. He didn’t just feel happy to finally feel like himself again either. No, Haren went even further than that when describing his day.
“I finally feel like part of the team,” he said. “I’ve been waiting a long time to have a good start. My confidence has been building ever since the first game, getting pounded in Cincinnati.”
“From then on, my confidence has gotten better and better, more and more. Today, I know I’ll feel good coming into the next start. When I took the ball today, I felt like I was going to win.”
Haren had a good feeling about getting the victory despite feeling off before the game. It wasn’t like he took the mound knowing he would have his best stuff of the season so far.
“I actually felt terrible in the bullpen for the first time all year,” he said. “I got in a groove in the middle innings. I started feeling good in the second, third inning.”
“A lot of times, it’s like that for starting pitchers. When you don’t have your best stuff in the bullpen prior to the game, it kind of locks you in a little bit. It really makes you hit your spots.”
Haren went six full innings with two earned runs, six hits, five strikeouts, and zero walks. It was a solid outing on par with what the Nationals expected on a regular basis when they signed him to a one-year deal over the winter.
“That was more like him,” manager Davey Johnson said. “Just like what we were talking about before, he was still throwing with plenty of velocity, he just changes speeds, moves the ball around. Pitches. That’s what he did today, which was nice to see.”
Haren was working his fastball effectively in the high 80s, hitting 90 early on. But his best pitch on Saturday was his probably his splitter. Haren got two Reds to strike out swinging on the pitch plus a double play to end the second inning.
Haren also got the Nats started at the plate with the first RBI of the game in the second inning. He fouled off two Mike Leake splitters before poking a single to right field to score Ian Desmond from second.
“I was trying not to strike out, really,” Haren said. “Good things happen when you put the ball in play. So right there, I was just trying to fight, stay alive. In that situation with two strikes, I’m just trying to shorten up, put the ball in play.”
Haren drove in the first run, but his teammates picked up right after to give him a comfortable lead in the game’s early innings. One batter later Denard Span lined a single up the middle to score Anthony Rendon. The Nats scored two runs in the inning and would match that number in each of the next two frames.
In the third inning Bryce Harper led off with a single and was moved to second by Jayson Werth who barely beat Zack Cozart’s throw to first on an infield grounder. Desmond then singled home Harper and Werth scored on a Jack Hannahan throwing error to second with two outs. Through three innings Leake had thrown 71 pitches and shown enough to be hooked early by Dusty Baker.
The Nats added two more in the fourth inning off of Harper’s ninth home run of the season. On the one year anniversary of his call-up to the majors, Harper smoked a line drive off Alfredo Simon into the right field bullpen to bring home Danny Espinosa and give the Nats a 6-1 lead.
“The whole AB I saw three fastballs and he threw me I think it was a slider, I just tried to get the barrel on it and I was lucky enough to get it out of the ballpark,” he said.
After the game, Harper’s 23rd of the season, he is batting .373 with nine homers and 18 RBI on the season, the latter two team records for the month of April. He was called up one year ago and just played his 162nd game as a major league player. His numbers over that stretch are a cool 31 homers, 77 RBI, with a .284/.352/.518 slash. Not bad for a 20-year-old still learning the ways of professional baseball.
After the game Harper reflected on his first full year since being brought up from Triple-A Syracuse.
“It was pretty quick,” Harper said. “I had a fun year last year and I think being able to have a team and an organization that really brought me in with open arms and gave me the opportunity to play in the big leagues last year, I was so fortunate.
“Having a group of guys around me that really took me under their win and said ‘hey, you’re with us now and we’re ready to go.’ It’s been like that ever since then.”
Harper is playing on a young team overall, but some of his teammates have seen enough to know he is not your average big leaguer.
“It’s unbelievable,” Tyler Clippard said. “He doesn’t play like a 20-year-old that’s for sure and when he got here last year he didn’t play like a 19-year-old. His baseball IQ and what he has naturally mentally is far beyond his years.
“He seems like he gets better daily and you can’t say that about a lot of guys. For a guy with his talent and his ability to get better every day, I’m glad he’s on my team.”
“Special. No question he’s an unbelievable talent,” Span said. “I compare it to 2009 when I was teammates with Joe Mauer, watching him win the MVP. Every day he was doing something to help us win, whether it was calling a good game or coming through with a big hit. For the first month, that’s what I’ve seen out of Bryce.”
Span wasn’t only giving great quotes and driving in a run with his RBI single, the Nats center fielder in many ways saved the game. He had two spectacular catches to save runs and keep the Nats on top. Though they scored six early and held on for the win, there were several moments where the Reds were close to getting back into it.
“That’s unbelievable. I’d rather do that any day of the week just to help my pitchers. I feel like I’m a defender first, and that usually picks me up offensively,” he said.
Span’s first run-saving grab was a leaping catch at the wall in left-center to save an extra base hit by Joey Votto. It was in the sixth inning and Cozart was on first, plus Haren had just surrendered a solo home run to Shin-Soo Choo.
“Votto, I was already playing deep,” Span said. “I was respecting his power. I’m not sure if the ball would have went over, but I was prepared to bring it back if it did go out.”
Span’s second catch ended the seventh inning and also came after the Reds had scored a run. With two outs and the bases loaded, Cozart belted a hard line drive into the gap in left-center field. Span was shading to the left as scouting reports and spray charts told him the lefty likes to go opposite field.
“At first I wasn’t sure, but I got a good jump,” Span said. “That was my favorite out of the two today because I was shading him over to the opposite field. He lined it in the left-center gap and that’s just fun for me to go out there and run and show my speed and grab the ball like that in the gap.”
Haren was on the mound for the first catch and watched the second one from the dugout.
“If the ball falls, it’s probably a tie game. He saved four or five runs today,” he said.
Harper ran towards both fly balls trying to back up his teammate and, as a young player learning his position, was amazed at Span’s defensive display.
“That’s just special,” Harper said. “There’s guys that can make those plays and there’s guys that can’t. I grew up being a catcher, a third baseman and a shortstop so I’m still learning how to do that.”
First base coach Tony Tarasco helps out coaching the outfielders and deflected all credit Span sent his way for pregame drills.
“He’s so tenacious about his defense. He’s so sound, he’s not flashy, he’s so sound as an outfielder,” Tarasco said. “Once he gets in stride it’s like he skips after the baseball.”
“He just wanted the baseball today.”
The Nats won their third consecutive game after losing their previous four. They will now look for the four-game sweep on Sunday against the Reds before going on a road trip to play first place Atlanta. They were down and now they’re up, something Harper has already learned how to take in stride.
“That’s sports, sometimes you’re going to lose and sometimes you’re going to win. Fans are going to go crazy if you lose or if you win,” he said.
“I’m just happy that we’ve been in the win column the past three nights and I’m excited to get going tomorrow.”