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The Invincible M.A.E.


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Athletics
harleymae

The Fire Inside

The Fire Inside
Everything about All-Star starter Dan Haren seems free and easy. It takes a lot of work to pull that off

If you were staking out the second floor of the All-Star FanFest, hoping to catch Barry Zito walking through the area dubbed Barry Zito Way, well ... sorry. The Giants ace was 325 miles south of San Francisco's Moscone Center, relaxing in a hotel room in Santa Barbara, doing his best to gather himself for the second half. But when A's righthander Dan Haren took the mound - Zito's mound - to start the All-Star Game for the American League at AT&T Park, Zito was glued to his TV. He admits to being torn when Haren, his protege, got Barry Bonds, his teammate and frined, to pop a harmless fly to right. Haren worked two innings, allowing one run and two hits, and Zito didn't miss a pitch. Afterward, he sent Haren a text: "I'm proud of you."

A lot of hard work went into making Haren an overnight sensation in the East Bay, although he never shows it. On the surface, Haren, who grew up 10 miles east of LA, seems to validate every SoCal stereotype. Shaggy brown hair drapes over his ears, his collar, sometimes even his eyes. Only when the scruff on his cheeks threatens to bridge the gap between sideburns and goatee does he even consider a shave. His movements, right down to the pause in the middle of his windup, are slow and languid, his 6'5", 220-pound body always relaxed. ("He's super quiet," Zito says. "Very mysterious.") All this leaves you wondering how any waking soul could possibly be more tranquil.

Until, that is, Haren reaches the balance point of his motion, breaks his hands and explodes. "He's always coming at the hitter," says A's pitching coach Curt Young. "He's never in a defensive, nitpick, don't-want-contact mode. He always seems to be saying, 'I'm coming at you with my fastball, you can't hit my split, and when I throw my curveball right, you can't hit it, either."

At the All-Star break, Haren's 2.30 ERA and .205 opponents' batting average were best in the American League, and he trailed only aces Josh Beckett, C.C. Sabathia and John Lackey with his 10 wins. "He's not fun to face," says Derek Jeter. "He never throws anything straight. He keeps you guessing." In Oakland, the 26-year-old Haren is the anchor of the new Big Three: Along with Chad Gaudin and Joe Blanton, he has helped the A's lead the AL in ERA. "When Dan goes out there," Young says, "we all feel we're going to win."

Haren didn't always inspire such confidence. He came to Oakland in December 2004, packaged with pitcher Kiko Calero and catcher Daric Barton in a widely criticized trade that sent 17-game winner Mark Mulder to the Cardinals. It was GM Billy Beane's second shocker in three days: He had just sent ace Tim Hudson to the Braves, leaving Zito the lone third of the original Big Three. At the start of 2005, Haren promptly lost seven of his first eight decisions. "I really felt like I didn't belong here, that I couldn't get guys out and I didn't have the stuff," he says. "It was hard for me to believe I was good enough, because every time I went out there, I was pitching not to lose. If I got a no-decision, I was happy."

Before facing the Devil Rays in Oakland on May 31, 2005, Haren turned to Zito for help. Haren remembers everything about the conversation, even where he was sitting in the dugout. zito pointed out the obvious: Beane wouldn't have given up an arm like Mulder's if he didn't think Haren was the real deal. Zito told Haren to find a swagger, to strut a bit, because acting like he was going to dominate would help him do just that. Haren allowed only one run that night, pitching his first major league complete game. He didn't lose again until mid-August, and finished the season 14-12.

Haren says now that what helped him was Zito's example as much as his advice. "Every game Barry started, he'd be pitching in the seventh inning, whether he had his good stuff or just garbage," Haren says. "He would never give in."

Neither does Haren, even off the mound. Two winters ago, he and his future wife, Jessica, were spending 10 days visiting family in New York City. Every day, Haren would grab his backpack, pull on a hoodie and head out into the Queens chill. He stood at one end of a blacktop basketball court and played long-toss against the concrete wall of the public bathroom at the other end. The first day, a cop told him to knock it off. On the second day, after Haren had thrown for five minutes, an irate vagrant stormed out of the men's room and cursed at the pitcher for waking him up. "I felt awful," Haren says. "The echoes in there must have been terrible." He's cost Jessica sleep as well. On their honeymoon in Mexico last November, he'd wake up his bride early so they could hit the gym.

Starting in December, Haren and bullpen catcher Brandon Buckley met nearly every day at an AstroTurf field 10 minutes from their Bay Area homes. They stretched. They ran. They played long-toss the length of the field, to build arm strength. They also worked on Haren's balance, mechanics and foot placement. But priority No. 1 was mastering the cut fastball, which, in addition to two- and four-seam fastballs, the spiked curveball he learned from Jason Isringhausen, and his trademark diving splitter, gave Haren five pitches he can throw for strikes.

When Haren was at Pepperdine, his size and stroke reminded coach Frank Sanchez of former USC star Mark McGwire. But it was Haren's ability to throw strikes that convinced Sanchez to turn the young corner infielder into a pitcher. Last season, Haren's 3.91 K-to-walk ratio set a franchise record. Putting so many pitches over the plate can lead to a lot of long balls, which never sat well with Haren. "My original thinking with the cutter was to get in on lefties' hands and get them off of my fastball away," he says. "So I use it if I'm having trouble throwing my fastball inside. Sometimes, I'll only use it four or five times in a game, but just being able to show it to a hitter can get them off a fastball." So far, it's working. Haren served up 31 home runs last season. At the halfway point this year, he'd allowed only 11.

Haren's 17 quality starts in 19 first-half outings earned him the All-Star nod from Tigers skipper Jim Leyland. For the announcement at San Fran's St. Francis hotel, Haren wore a gray suit, a yellow shirt, three days of stubble and a perpetual grin. When it was his turn to talk, his blue eyes sparkled. He spoke of honor and hard work and his sense of awe. And he spoke of Zito. "I don't know where I'd be without him," Haren said. "I'm a better pitcher because of him."

Three seats away sat Cardinals manager tony La Russa. In October 2004, Haren relieved St. Louis starter Woody Williams in the third inning of Game 1 of the World Series at Fenway Park. Haren, then just 24, was a two-pitch reliever with no postseason experience. But while he was rattled by all the flashbulbs and by the sing-songy "Who-is-Har-en?" chants from Red Sox Nation, he pitched 3 2/3 scoreless innings in a losing cause. His performance triggered a rare disagreement between La Russa and his longtime pitching coach, Dave Duncan. "That was the closest we've ever come to having a disrupted relationship," La Russa says. "He was adamant that Dan be a part of St. Louis' future." But La Russa wanted Mulder, and the veteran manager got his way.

Now Haren has his future all planned out. "I want to have the same six years that Zito did here," he says.

Across the Bay, his mentor will be watching.