Haren rediscovered his mechanics, backed off and tried to pitch without considering the radar gun. His ERA dropped from 4.82 on Aug. 25 to 4.33 by the end of the year. The Nationals brought in the 32-year-old right-hander to pick up where he left off.
"I didn't trust myself last year," Haren said. "I saw that my velocity was a little bit down and I was trying to overthrow. When you're overthrowing, that means that you're not trusting yourself. Toward the end of the year, I started to find myself. It's easier said than done to just trust what you've got out there when you have a rough game and give up eight runs in three innings -- to sit at your locker and say, 'I'll get 'em next time.'"
In all likelihood, Haren's first next time will come slotted somewhere behind Nationals headliners Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, who occupy lockers on either side of Haren at the club's Spring Training complex in Viera, Fla.
Signed to a one-year, $13 million contract in January, Haren has a wealth of experience compared to his peers. Of his rotation mates, only Ross Detwiler and Gonzalez have appeared in five big league seasons, and only Gonzalez (twice) has reached 200 innings in a season (Haren's done it seven times, including a string of six consecutive from 2005-10).
"His value to me is that he's a capable mid-to-upper rotation starting pitcher and he gives you a veteran leadership clubhouse presence, and a guy who's been around and greatly successful for years to come," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "But we didn't get him here and pay him to be a mentor for our starters. We brought him to be a real contributor in the rotation. We feel that a healthy Dan Haren is going to revert to previous Dan Haren, and that's what we're looking for."
The three-time All-Star was reportedly pursued by a number of other teams this offseason, but his signing with the Nationals ultimately was an indication of how far this club has come in just a short amount of time.
"The biggest part of it was just the opportunity to win," Haren said of coming to Washington. "I'm not that old, but at this point in my career, winning is the number one priority. ... What other team in baseball gives you a better opportunity to win than this one? Probably none."
Among active pitchers, Haren trails only Mariano Rivera (4.0397) with a career strikeout-walk ratio of 4.0127. Three times (2008 and 2009 with the D-backs and 2011 with the Angels) he's led the league.
"When I first saw him throw, the ball came out of his hand real good and he was painting [the corner of the plate]," manager Davey Johnson said. "I said something to him like, 'Man, you're looking good.' And he said something to the effect of, 'I have a little command.' I said, 'That's right.'"
Strasburg called Haren "a proven winner" and "a guy who knows what it takes." Adam LaRoche, who spent time with Haren when both were in Arizona in 2010, said the hurler has "a little attitude about him" when he pitches.
"He's a guy that, if he doesn't have it that night, can get creative and knows to grind through some of those outings," LaRoche said. "I've seen him do it a lot. I've seen him do it when I don't know if it was a back issue or something going on that year where he was able to fight through it and change the way he pitched, mix some pitches up and kind of become a different pitcher.
"Anyway, he knows how to win. That's one thing he done, gone out and been real competitive. I love playing behind him."