WASHINGTON -- Dan Haren's early-season problems are rather similar to what his Washington teammates have dealt with in the season's first month.
The veteran right-hander's been a mix between good, bad and somewhere in between. Haren turned in his most effective performance Monday night, working his way into the sixth inning, but it wasn't enough as St. Louis edged Washington, 3-2, before 27,263 at Nationals Park.
Haren hadn't gone more than five innings in his first three starts and came into the series opener with an 8.10 ERA. He gave up three runs on six hits in five-plus innings and fell to 1-3 this season. It wasn't perfect overall, but Haren showed the kind of progress that made manager Davey Johnson happy.
"I thought he threw the ball a lot better," Johnson said. "I thought he had good location and mixed his pitches up. I thought he pitched a good ballgame. That's a very positive outing for me."
Haren also felt better with what he saw, but he still wanted to go longer. It's clear the veteran is truly bothered and somewhat mystified by his 2013 struggles.
Haren's ERA dropped to 7.36, still very high, and hitting Matt Holliday to start the game-winning rally in the sixth frustrated the veteran, but the right-hander's looking to improve any way he can.
"I have to just stay positive," Haren said. "It's been eating at me, it really has. This week, I tried to make a conscious effort to have more fun out there and not to put so much stress on myself. I want to do well more than anybody. Now I've got to wait five days."
As a team, the Nationals are kind of moving along the way of Haren. This loss, in a rematch of last year's dramatic five-game National League Division Series loss against St. Louis, dropped them to 10-9 on the season.
The biggest problem for the Nationals is that they're doing some things good at certain times, but not everything well at once. That's why St. Louis starter Shelby Miller (3-1) was able to pitch well, as he relied heavily on high fastballs that Washington batters repeatedly swung at.
Miller gave up two runs on four hits and finished with eight strikeouts and two walks in 6 2/3 innings.
"I was talking to [catcher Yadier Molina], and he knew that this team, especially, would swing at pitches up in the zone," Miller said. "Obviously, they have a really good lineup overthere, but I faced them in the spring, and I know that they'll swing at the ball up."
Johnson noticed Miller's strategy also, saying the right-hander stuck with fastballs almost constantly. The skipper said he thought Miller threw just a handful of breaking balls -- maybe only two -- throughout the night.
"We're not swinging the bats throughout the lineup like we're capable of," Johnson said.
The Nationals swung well at times. St. Louis (11-8) took a 2-0 lead in the third on Allen Craig's two-run double that just deflected off Denard Span's glove in deep center. Ian Desmond and Anthony Rendon then tied the game with back-to-back RBI doubles in the fourth.
Rendon's double was his first Major League hit and RBI, a shot into the gap in right-center, which gave him a key run-scoring hit in his first career home game.
The 22-year-old rookie said he'll always remember that first hit. He already had the baseball, which was sitting on a shelf in his locker.
"It's the one thing you're going to treasure the rest of your life," Rendon said of that first hit. "You don't get another one."
The Cardinals then took the lead for good on Molina's RBI single in sixth. That gave St. Louis a 3-2 edge, and the Nationals missed on two good scoring chances after that.
Washington had runners on first and second with two outs in the eighth, but pinch-hitter Chad Tracy was robbed by center fielder Jon Jay, who raced in to make a sliding catch of Tracy's bloop. The Nationals threatened once more in the eighth, putting runners on second and third with two outs.
That's when right-hander Trevor Rosenthal struck out Desmond looking, and Edward Mujica earned his second save by retiring the Nationals in order in the ninth. Washington finished just 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position.
That kind of symbolized what the Nationals have been going through in this first month. Still, Washington is trying to stay focused and look at the fact that there's still about five months remaining in the 2013 season.
"It's a marathon," pitcher Drew Storen said. "We're a good team, and for us to get where we need to be, we need to take a step forward every night, and I think we're doing that."
Jeff Seidel is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.