Haren wins, looks to solve early struggles

LOS ANGELES -- Dan Haren has lost this kind of start before in the recent past. So have the Los Angeles Dodgers, fairly commonly whenever Haren gives it to them.

The team with the sport's highest payroll finds itself one of the most disappointing in the game at this point. Second place in the National League West in mid-June does not sit well with those who set expectations, and it earns criticism from the manager sprinkled with an expletive every now and again.

The past five times Haren has delivered this kind of start -- not great, not really good, but also not really terrible -- the Dodgers lost four of them. The arm is just getting him by lately, tallying a 4.60 ERA in his five starts before taking the ball Saturday at Dodger Stadium against the Arizona Diamondbacks. But the team was still mostly losing with Haren on the mound, and his early-inning awfulness and declining swing-and-miss rates were to blame.

So Haren used his bat this time. The offense had already twice climbed out of holes he dug, so he made a contribution at the plate. Haren's three-run double in the fourth inning was the defining hit of the night, as the Dodgers continued to dominate the last-place Diamondbacks to earn a 6-4 win and pick up another game on the now-struggling San Francisco Giants, whose division lead is down to 6 1/2 games.

"That felt really good," Haren said. "Anytime a pitcher can help himself out it feels good. ... I'm just glad the bullpen made it hold up."

Haren pitched into the seventh inning for the fourth time this year, but it's the trouble he finds his first time through the opposing lineup that is concerning. Teams have tagged Haren for 51 hits in 42 innings through the first three frames of a game, and his ERA during innings one through three is 4.50. Some of it could be bad luck, though, as his BABIP in those innings is .328, compared to .262 in innings four through seven.

Whatever it is, it's frustrating for Haren. Even though the Dodgers never scored more than three runs for him in those four losses from May 18 to June 3, he has put the team in chase mode early in each start.

"It's been that way for a long time now," Haren said. "I'm not coming out that crisp. ... It's been that way for the last eight to 10 starts now. I'm making it hard on myself."

Said manager Don Mattingly: "It's a matter of him getting in his rhythm and getting the ball where he wants." But part of the struggle is teams are jumping on Haren early and being aggressive the first time through the order. As Haren gets older and his raw stuff declines, his contact rate increases. Entering Saturday, hitters were making contact 91.7 percent of the time when swinging at pitches Haren threw in the strike zone and 73.2 percent of the time when swinging at pitches out of the zone, which is a career high by far for Haren, according to Fangraphs.com.

Haren knows this.

"I'm not getting guys to swing and miss as much, but I'm getting more swings and misses as the game goes along," he said.

The answer might be for Haren to establish his fastball early (advice from rotation mate Zack Greinke) instead of trying to mix in offspeed pitches the first time through the order.

The Dodgers have won Haren's past two starts, but they have also scored six runs in each. Obviously, he can't rely on the offense -- or himself -- to put up numbers like that every time he takes the ball, so he better figure out how to solve the early-inning struggles soon, or that July 31 non-waiver trade deadline could start looming with every hanging cutter and misplaced changeup.