Originally posted on Fox Sports West  |  Last updated 5/25/12
SEATTLE Now we know what happens when Dan Haren is feeling good, when his back isn't an issue, when his fastball and cutter are behaving and he gets a few runs of support behind him. The Dan Haren who pitched on a cold Thursday night at Safeco Field was on target and in control. Best of all, his lower back wasn't barking as it has been in the past. That's a good sign for him and the Angels. "This guy competes like nobody I've ever seen," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. That can be good and bad. Haren is a bulldog. He wants the ball every fifth day, no questions asked. But he also refuses to acknowledge when he's not right. Earlier this month in Minnesota, his lower back was giving him problems and he couldn't get out of the fourth inning. But Thursday, he was almost unhittable so good, in fact, that he reduced Albert Pujols to a footnote on a night when Pujols hit his 450th career home run and had three hits in the Angels' 3-0 victory over the Seattle Mariners. Haren upstaged his teammate. He ended a personal four-game losing streak with a 126-pitch, four-hit shutout, striking out a career-high 14 batters and reaching the 1,500-strikeout mark in his career. He went to a three-ball count just once and issued no walks; that's the most strikeouts without a walk by an Angels pitcher since Frank Tanana had 17 K's in a 1975 game. It was an impressive rebound for a pitcher who hadn't won since April 28, although three of his defeats came when the Angels were shut out. But he was also battling with back problems almost since the start of the season, not that he would use that as an excuse. "It hasn't helped," he conceded. "Even pitching at 80 percent, I should get better results than I've been getting in prior starts. But I think it was obvious that my stuff was better and I've been feeling better in general. I'm happy to win a game. I forgot what it felt like." Here's what was better: everything. Haren had an effective fastball, cutter and split-finger fastball. He was helped by a big strike zone from home-plate ump Vic Carapazza, but he was also around the plate the entire game. He's a pitcher who doesn't walk many hitters, and he didn't walk any. "Obviously my command was better than it's been all year," he said. "That's my game, going right at hitters, and I've gotten away from that a little bit. So hopefully, it's just a reminder to myself that I can trust my stuff." What Haren wants to avoid more than anything is a recurrence of the back stiffness that ruined his start in Minnesota. He gave up eight hits and five runs in 3 23 innings and left with a 5-0 loss. Since then, he's worked to strengthen his back and keep himself fit. "I went out there with nothing that day," he recalled. "It's been an issue a little bit the whole year. It's just been a matter of taking care of it. It was kind of the perfect storm that day. I wasn't feeling that great, it was really cold, and I could never get going. But I've been taking care of myself in between starts even more and putting in hours of work to get to feel like I did today." Pujols provided him with ample support, following a leadoff single by Mike Trout in the first inning with a shot to left that hit the facing of the second deck a no-doubter for a guy who's been causing doubt in Angels fans all season. Pujols had two other hard-hit balls for singles, stole a base and scored two runs. His homer off Mariners starter Jason Vargas was his fourth in nine games, and he has 17 RBIs in an 18-game stretch. He's now two home runs shy of catching Carl Yastrzemski for 34th place on the all-time list, not that he's taking notes. "That's what I have the offseason for, to think about it," he said. "To tell you the truth, I didn't even know about it. I don't like to get caught up in numbers. At the end of my career, I know it's been such a blessing (of a) career that God has given me." Here's a number Pujols and the rest of the Angels can think about: They've won three games in a row for only the third time this season and are 13-10 in May after an awful April (8-15). They also won for the second day in a row when scoring three runs. Before Wednesday, they were 1-21 in games in which they score three runs or less. Is this the stuff of which turnarounds are made? "If you look at the whole month of May," Pujols said, "we got some huge breaks, we took advantage of mistakes the other team is making and we got some huge two-out hits when we needed to. Things like that can turn a season around. But we don't want to sit back and wait. We want to continue to fight and go out there tomorrow and do the same thing." That's been the problem: doing the same thing when things have been going right. But Haren gives them hope, and maybe Pujols is finally going to pay dividends on his huge expectations. If that happens, good things may follow.
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