Dan Haren allowed two runs on seven hits through five innings in a rehabilitation start at Class-A Inland Empire Monday evening and expressed optimism regarding his impending return from a lower back injury that clouded his effectiveness over a disappointing first half of the 2012 season.
Haren, 6-8 with a 4.86 ERA and having surrendered 16 homeruns in 17 major league starts, threw bullpen sessions on Thursday and Saturday before a 65-pitch, 44-strike outing in San Bernardino for the Angels' California League affiliate, who escaped with a 5-4, come-from-behind win over the Lake Elsinore Storm at San Manuel Stadium. Haren struck out two and did not walk a batter.
"The crispness on my pitches was good," Haren said. "Obviously they were very aggressive. They wanted to get hits, so I couldn't really get into many counts. It was good work. I'm glad I did it. We had talked about just doing a simulated game, but I think it was better to probably just get lefties and righties up there."
For a Los Angeles team that has relied heavily on the arms of Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, Haren's success in bouncing back during the second half would go a long way for an organization that would prefer to foster improvements from players already on the roster than having to surrender prospects in a trade for an innings-eating starter. Ervin Santana, who did not earn a decision in Monday's 8-6 loss in Detroit, is 4-9 with a 5.60 ERA land last won on June 16.
The Angels have allowed 6.5 runs per game since the All-Star break. Had the playoffs begun Tuesday, they would enter the playoffs as the American League's first Wild Card team.
"I know that we've struggled coming out of the gates a little bit in the second half, but we have all the potential in the world," Haren said. "We played great up to now. We have a tough road ahead of us. No one's going to give anything to us. We're going to need all 25 guys."
Declaring that his DL stint was due more to stiffness in his lower back rather than actual pain, Haren battled through repeated waves of soreness and inflammation before finally being placed on the DL for the first time in his 10-year career. He was 3-2 with an 8.67 ERA over his last five major league starts.
"Ever since spring I haven't been the same," Haren admitted. "There were a few games where it'd feel fine, but even the games like the one in Seattle this year where I threw a complete game shutout -- I wasn't feeling like I was last year. I still was a little bit stiff. Some days were better than others. The last time in Cleveland, it just kind of put me over the top, because I had felt pretty good coming into the game and then the day before, it just pretty much locked up on me, and I tried to get out there, and I wasn't helping the team. I took a step back and we got I think all of the stiffness out of there, and hopefully come out of this good and go from there."
Though eligible to return from the DL on Thursday, Haren expressed a desire to take the mound for the Angels on Sunday in what would be the finale of a three-game series against the first place Texas Rangers, whom Los Angeles trails by five and a half games entering action Tuesday.
Haren, who hadn't missed a start in over eight seasons and had logged at least 215 innings for seven straight years, described the difficulty of having to forego several starts while recuperating.
"I kind of had to swallow my pride having the consecutive starts streak and wanting to go out there and help the team," he said. "I think the competitor in any pitcher feels like even at whatever percentage -- 60, 70 percent -- you can go out and get people out. You get out there, and big league hitters are better than that. Probably should have gotten taken care of or just taken some time, get my body a little bit of a breather. I felt like going into the All-Star Break, it was the best time for the team and for me to try to take two weeks off and feel better."
He also described the challenges of making his first minor league start since 2004, saying that the adrenaline was "kind of tough to get going".
"I was a little bit out of sorts to start. The ball was kind of going everywhere on me," the three-time All-Star said. "The last inning was my best inning. I was working on something specific every inning. The last inning I was just going to go fastball and split, changeup kind of thing. So we just did fastball, split, the whole inning. It felt good. My fastball especially felt good there at the end. That's the most important pitch for me, just being able to throw everything off of my fastball."
If there was any challenge Monday, it was minor compared to the frustration of having to spend time away from his teammates during his recovery.
"I hated it," Haren said of his DL stint. "I think during the All-Star Break, I had insomnia. I slept like nine hours in three days, total. I was stressed about not being out there. I stayed home, so that was really hard watching the team on TV. After playing for 10 years, I never sat back and watch the game on TV, being home. And especially now if you lose a game or two -- we lost that tough one on the first day -- it's tough not being there. I'll be looking forward to joining the team and just being in the dugout."
He enjoyed his rare minor league experience, never mind the lifestyle disparity and nutritional challenges brought about by spending time in an A-ball clubhouse.
"I forgot how tough it was," Haren said. "I mean, eating hot dogs? They must have eaten about a hundred hot dogs in the two days I was here. It was crazy."