PHOENIX — Dan Haren's season, much like the Nationals' season, felt like a lost cause earlier this summer. With little reason to believe things would significantly turn for the better, both the right-hander and his team easily could have mailed it in and turned their sights on 2014.
In the end, neither did. Haren resurrected his year and his confidence, and the Nationals turned into baseball's best club over the season's final seven weeks.
It won't result in a postseason appearance for either, but both will depart for the winter feeling much better about the state of things.
"I'm happy with the way I finished out for me," Haren said after pitching the Nationals to a 2-0 victory over the Diamondbacks. "Obviously, team-wise, we just didn't meet our expectations. I think overall this team built a lot of character this year."
Saturday night's performance by Haren and his teammates also let Davey Johnson head home feeling much better about himself. This victory ensured Johnson will finish his career at least 300 games over the .500 mark. (His record sits at 1,372-1,070 entering Sunday's finale.)
Johnson had made it known the last few days he wanted to reach that milestone. Why? Well, consider he's only the 15th manager in baseball history to do it. And of the other 14, 11 are in the Hall of Fame, with Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa and Bobby Cox likely to make it to Cooperstown someday themselves.
After getting swept in St. Louis to begin the season's final week, the Nationals needed to win at least twice in Arizona to seal Johnson's record. They did it, beating the Diamondbacks on Friday and then shutting them out Saturday.
"Not that I could hit .300, but it'd be nice to have that number," Johnson said. "So that's why I was pushing them. I even told [Ian Desmond] and a couple guys: 'I'd like to have 300 over the loss column.' So they were all grinding. They didn't do too good of a job in St. Louis, but they did great in Arizona."
Upon conclusion of this game, Johnson walked into the clubhouse at Chase Field, thanked his players for their effort and then was presented with a bottle of wine.
"I don't know if he really cares about it that much, but it's a pretty cool accomplishment," Haren said. "We wanted to win the games. ... I know he had his 'Win one for the Gipper' thing yesterday. So I guess we won two for the Gipper."
Haren didn't need any extra motivation to win this game. After a miserable first half that left him questioning his future in the sport, the veteran right-hander resurrected his season after a brief stint on the disabled list with what was officially termed "shoulder inflammation" but was later confirmed by Haren to be nothing more than a mental break.
Over his final 12 starts, he went 6-3 with a 3.14 ERA. His final season numbers (10-14, 4.67 ERA in 30 starts) won't earn him another $13 million contract this winter, but the strong finish does leave Haren confident he still can succeed at this level.
"I'm proud of the way I turned it around," he said. "But like I told you guys all year, I really beat myself up about it during the first half. Just that really, really bad stretch of starts I had. It's been a really tough emotional mental year for me. ... Physically I felt fine, but the mental side of it just crushed me this year. I'm happy with the way I finished up, but I'll still always have that guilt of the way it started and the expectations that were not met for the team."
Neither Haren nor Johnson will return to Washington next year, but the former firmly believes the team that does take the field at Nationals Park in 2014 will be built to win.
"I know I probably won't be a part of it next year, but we're going to be … the Nationals will be a scary team next year. Nobody wanted to play us this year. If we got in, we'd be the team to beat. The talent is there for next year, and this organization is in a good place."