ATLANTA — As dominant and as efficient as he'd been all night, Dan Haren was showing some signs of fatigue in the bottom of the eighth inning Thursday night. Despite having allowed only one run and four hits to the Braves, the veteran right-hander was suddenly in a spot where one bad pitch could result in a game-tying homer.
So as Davey Johnson made the slow walk from the Nationals' dugout to the mound, Haren (like everyone else at Turner Field) knew what was next.
"He was gonna take the ball from me," the right-hander said.
Not so fast. Johnson's intention may have been to signal for Drew Storen out of the bullpen, but first he needed the answer to one question.
"Heck of a ballgame. How you feeling?" Johnson asked.
"I feel great," Haren replied.
"Good," Johnson fired back. "I'm out of here."
Having just been given a resounding vote of confidence, Haren promptly rewarded his manager for the decision. He struck out Chris Johnson to end the eighth and pumped his fist as he skipped off the mound, having laid the groundwork for a 3-1 victory, the Nationals' second straight over a Braves club that had looked unbeatable to that point.
"We needed this game. We needed it bad," Haren said. "And we needed yesterday, and Jordan [Zimmermann] stepped up, so I wanted to do my part. I'm happy obviously with the way I threw the ball, but I'm happy for the team. We have a good flight to Pittsburgh, everyone with a good feeling going into what's going to be a fun series over there."
With back-to-back stellar pitching performances, the Nationals moved their record (15-14) back over .500 and trimmed Atlanta's lead in the NL East to 2 1/2 games. Not that anyone was in panic-mode two nights ago following their ninth consecutive loss to the Braves, but there was a collective understanding that things needed to be cleaned up ASAP, before things did start to spiral out of control.
"We're starting to come together as a team, starting to mesh," said Jayson Werth, who departed in the fifth inning with a tight hamstring and will likely miss several days. "We've got new guys in here, so those things take time. Chemistry takes time. I feel like it's starting to happen."
It certainly helps when you get the kind of dominant pitching performances the Nationals received from Zimmermann and Haren over the last two nights. Combined, the two right-handers allowed one run on six hits over 16 sterling innings, averaging a meager 12 pitches per frame.
We've come to expect such outings from Zimmermann, now 5-1 with a 1.64 ERA. But Haren had yet to offer anything close to this since signing a $13 million contract in December, having only reached the sixth inning for the first time all season in his previous start.
The 32-year-old, though, had made steady progress in each outing to date. And he put it all together on Thursday, thanks in part to his own realization that he couldn't try to mimic the four flamethrowers that comprise the rest of the Nationals' rotation.
"I'm not gonna care about velocity anymore. I'm sick of that," he said. "It just gives me problems. So I'm just gonna be myself out there, whether it's 88 or 85 [mph]. I don't really care. I know I can get people out. I challenge hitters and I can spot up, down and away, in, wherever."
In returning to his roots, Haren put forth the kind of start that used to define his career. He'd pitched eight or more innings 44 previous times in the big leagues, but only twice in his last 35 outings.
He left no doubt about his ability to do it Thursday, retiring the first six batters he saw on 13 total pitches, completing six scoreless innings on a scant 57 pitches, then finishing strong with his strikeout of Johnson in the bottom of the eighth on his 90th pitch of the night.
"That's what he's capable of doing," center fielder Denard Span said. "That's the three-time All-Star Dan Haren right there."
Span did his part to help Haren earn his third win of the season — shockingly, that's as many as Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez have combined — by contributing to all three of the Nationals' early runs. He led off the game with a double, took third on a wild pitch and then scored on Steve Lombardozzi's RBI single. One inning later, Span ripped a hot shot past Johnson at third base, bringing home two more runs. (Johnson was initially charged with an error, but the call was later changed to another double.)
That was all the run support Haren needed. He carved up the Atlanta lineup, his lone mistake coming on a 3-2 cutter in the bottom of the seventh that Dan Uggla crushed into the left-field bleachers.
That trimmed the lead to 3-1, but that was as close as the Braves got. Haren navigated his way through the eighth. Rafael Soriano then tossed a scoreless ninth to record his ninth save and send the Nationals to Pittsburgh feeling much better about themselves than they did 48 hours earlier.
"I feel like April was just one of those months for us," Werth said. "It's over. Now we're in May. Now we can go."