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Haren's outing a breath of fresh air for Halos

ANA View Full Game Coverage HEIM -- Those panic alarms that sounded across Southern California during Ervin Santana's dismal outing on Saturday were shut off by Dan Haren on Sunday evening at Angel Stadium.

In a season of struggle, Haren finally looked and felt like himself in a 7-4 victory over the Rangers, putting strikes in precise locations with his variety of pitches. That is about as good as news gets around here these days.

"I pitched through a lot of [back] pain and wasn't getting good results," Haren said, the Angels won the series and sliced Texas' American League West lead to five games. "I decided to go on the disabled list and get 12 good starts rather than 16 ordinary starts.

"If I pitch to my capabilities, I think we'll be in a good spot. One game isn't going to change my year, but I feel good. I had some mechanical problems with my fastball tonight, but my offspeed stuff is night and day. My cutter's now a cutter rather than a slider, and I'm down in the zone rather than up.

"Being able to finish pitches, I'm only going to get better. My fastball next time out, I'm sure it's going to be better. You can pitch as many bullpen sessions as you want, but you can't simulate game speed and conditions. This is what I needed."

Haren lasted six innings and 95 pitches, yielding two runs on three hits and three walks while striking out three Rangers. A two-run homer by Nelson Cruz in the fourth inning shaved the lead to 3-2, but the Angels' offense turned up the volume with a three-run seventh that featured homers from Bobby Wilson and Albert Pujols.

Wilson also doubled and singled, but his most important job was keeping Haren and three relievers on target and in a rhythm right to the finish. Ernesto Frieri made it interesting with a pair of walks before blowing a full-count fastball past Josh Hamilton with two runners aboard to end it.

"I was trying to be too fine," Frieri said. "Everything I throw moves. The last pitch was a good fastball that I tried to throw down the middle."

Wilson also handled a perfectly dominant inning by Kevin Jepsen, but Scott Downs yielded a run in the eighth on two hits.

"Bobby did a nice job in the batter's box and behind the plate," manager Mike Scioscia said of his catcher. "Bobby had a great night."

And Haren? "That's huge," Scioscia said. "To see Dan get back so strong is encouraging. It wasn't like you went, `Wow' with his stuff. It was crisp, but his command was better. He got the glove to the outside corner nicely, and pitched inside, too.

"The walks were the only thing you can look at and try to erase. He pitched to contact, six strong innings."

With Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, Haren gives Scioscia three All-Star-caliber stoppers. Superior starting pitching is the best way yet devised to prevent losing streaks and extend winning streaks.

"The way Weave and Wilson have been pitching," Haren said, "I've got to hold up my end."

Trade winds have been blowing hot and heavy. The Angels do not want to diminish their club in other areas by dealing for a starting pitcher.

There are obvious risks in detaching bright prospects for aging talent or high-end rentals with expiring contracts. This is especially the case this season with the new postseason format.

If the Angels can't overtake the Rangers and can gain entrance in the postseason only by virtue of a Wild Card, the odds of advancing deep into October are reduced measurably. They'd have to survive the one-game Wild Card play-in, dealing your ace, and then, with home-field disadvantage, take on a rested team with the league's best record.

That's a whole lot of risk to take if you're considering moving premium young talent for an established starting pitcher.

"The only reason I feel bad is that if I pitched to my abilities this year, there wouldn't be a conversation about trades," Haren said. "More often than not I was battling to stay loose. It was nice to get some time off and feel good again.

"I've been worker harder than ever on my core, in the weight room. I've even lost a little weight. Maybe it's a good thing. I'll do anything for the team."

Haren has taken the first step toward alleviating those concerns. Santana finding his way back to competitive form would wipe them out altogether.

It had been 18 days between starts for Haren, who confessed to back issues in the aftermath of five consecutive substandard starts.

Only during occasional stretches this season has he been the same man regarded as one of the game's best, most consistent starters for a seven-year run starting in 2005 in Oakland.

In just five of his 17 starts before Sunday had Haren worked at least seven innings. He has remained efficient and occasionally dominant -- striking out as many as 14 in a game -- but has been hurt by the long ball. Cruz's blast was the 17th surrendered by Haren in 109 2/3 innings.

He yielded 20 homers last season in a career-high 238 1/3 innings.

"His split-finger was a little deceptive," said Rangers left fielder David Murphy, hitless in three plate appearances with a walk. "I definitely missed a few fastballs that I should have hit. When you do that, you're going to see the split-finger pitch later in the count. I should have done a better job of putting the bat on the fastball."

Haren wasn't in peak form, but he finally felt like himself. And that was good enough.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for

Los Angeles Angels, Dan Haren