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Dan Haren continues his surge

LOS ANGELES -- For a good part of four months, Dan Haren was the anti-Dodger starting pitcher, the source of fan frustration and the man likely to be left off a playoff rotation in the safe assumption this team gets to October.

It was all warranted. The majority of Haren's first 22 starts were near disastrous, especially when compared to guys like Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu and even Josh Beckett for a time. Haren had a 4.76 ERA and opponents were hitting .304 on balls put into play against him, and most importantly, the team was below .500 (10-12) when Haren took the ball.

That has changed rapidly, and Haren has now become one of the rotation's reliable starters when, for a time, it appeared the team was riding the Kershaw-or-bust jalopy. He was reliable again, throwing seven shutout innings at Dodger Stadium in a 4-0 win against the San Diego Padres on Wednesday night.

Since an Aug. 1 start against the putrid Chicago Cubs in which he gave up seven runs -- six earned -- in 4 1/3 innings, Haren has suddenly become the Dodgers' second-best starter. In his last seven starts, including Wednesday's, Haren is 5-1 with a 1.70 ERA, 34 strikeouts and seven walks in 42 1/3 innings. His batting average on balls in play has also dipped dramatically to .227, suggesting he ran into some bad luck before this run and into some good luck since starting it.

The success in small samples isn't new to Haren this season. He started the year 4-0 with a 2.39 ERA in his first six turns. That was soon followed by a 14-start stretch in which he posted a 6.04 ERA, and the team lost 10 of those games.

"This really has been more of his season than that stretch in the middle," manager Don Mattingly said. "Other than that, he's been like this.

"He got into a couple jams early and he got out of that. ... This is a guy who knows what he's doing."

Haren has been reluctant to give many details on why he has been so much better over the last five weeks, giving vague responses like, "some real small mechanical changes," when asked.

Mattingly said it was a couple of tweaks in Haren's mechanics that have given him some "late life" on his pitches, which is needed because Haren can no longer muscle the ball to the plate in the mid-90s. Now he is a finesse pitcher, one who needs movement and command to be successful.

"I've minimized my mistakes," Haren said. "It's little things. I've consciously tried to keep the ball in the yard, keep guys off balance and it's worked so I just have kind of stayed the course."

Roberto Hernandez was thought to be battling Haren for the fourth spot in the rotation, but at this point there is no comparison or competition.

Hernandez, acquired from the Philadelphia Philllies on Aug. 7, pitched against the same Padres on Tuesday and was beaten around the yard for five runs in three innings. Only two of those runs were earned, but beyond the errors, the Padres hit missile after missile as Hernandez could not miss many bats. In his previous start against the Washington Nationals, it was more of the same as they got him for five runs in 4 1/3 innings.

That leaves Haren as the Dodgers' fourth starter, as long as he can continue to even vaguely resemble this guy or the one who started the season looking like a bargain pickup.