Harden feels like old self in dominant start

Harden flirts with no-no in dominant start

OAKLAND -- This was the dominating pitcher the Rangers were expecting, a guy with No. 1 stuff who could take the mound on a given night and completely dominate the opposition.

This is what the Rangers were expecting to see from Rich Harden, and he showed it in a triumphant return to the Oakland Coliseum on Monday night.

Harden may not be throwing as hard as everybody expected, but he was extremely sharp with three different pitches over seven scoreless innings in pitching the Rangers to a 4-2 victory over the Athletics.

"Man, that's like the Rich Harden I remember from this ballpark," said Rangers third baseman Michael Young.

"That's the Rich Harden we want to see," manager Ron Washington echoed. Harden had been struggling in his first five starts, throwing too many pitches and walking too many batters. But that wasn't the case on Monday -- not when he had complete command of his slider, changeup and a 91-94 mph fastball.

"We didn't get the Harden we'd been hearing about all year," said Oakland's losing pitcher, Dallas Braden.

"I haven't seen all of his starts, but this one has to be his best game," said Athletics manager Bob Geren.

The Rangers lost their shutout in the ninth when Kevin Kouzmanoff hit a two-run home run off Frank Francisco. But Neftali Feliz retired three straight hitters for his sixth save and the Rangers won their fourth straight ballgame. They have a 1 1/2 game lead in the American League West.

Harden took a no-hitter into the sixth before a one-out double by Rajai Davis ended that dream. Harden also allowed a seventh-inning single to Eric Chavez, but that was it. Harden struck out nine and, despite leading the league in walks coming into game, did not issue a single base on balls. He entered the game 1-1 with a 4.56 ERA, but lowered that to 3.52 with Monday's effort.

"I felt like my old self," Harden said. "I just cleared my head and made my pitches. I've been thinking too much about mechanics. I didn't want to take that out there, I just wanted to go out there and throw it. It's been tough, but mentally this was just a different approach. I'm at my best when I don't think about it, but just let it go."

This was only the ninth time in 133 Major League starts that Harden did not walk a batter. He is 8-0 with a 0.71 ERA in those nine starts.

"That's what he has to do," Washington said. "Rich has good stuff, but he has to throw strikes. Especially against this team, if you don't throw strikes they're going to hurt you. But he did a great job. He threw strikes and pounded the strike zone. His mindset should be to throw the ball over the plate."

The A's have a reputation for being patient at the plate and working pitchers hard, but Harden knows that as well as anybody. The Athletics were his original franchise, and he pitched for them from 2003-08 before being traded to the Cubs. His 2.98 career ERA at the Oakland Coliseum coming into the game was the seventh best all-time for all pitchers with at least 20 starts there.

"It was nice to get back here," Harden said. "I was looking forward to pitching here. It's a familiar setting. Everything felt good. I know those guys and I know they take pitchers deep in counts and work walks. I just wanted to be aggressive and make them swing the bat instead of putting guys on base."

The Athletics, hit by some injuries, ran a lineup out there that was missing a few starters -- including catcher Kurt Suzuki, second baseman Mark Ellis and outfielders Travis Buck and Coco Crisp.

But Washington said that didn't matter.

"Tonight, the way he threw the ball, if it were against any other team, he would get the same results," he said.

Harden was overpowering through six but needed some big-time defensive help in the seventh. He got it from two unlikely sources: right fielder Vladimir Guerrero and second baseman Ian Kinsler.

Guerrero, with one out, made a terrific running catch in right-center to run down Kouzmanoff's deep drive, stretching at the last moment to make the grab.

"He made a great play," Washington said. "He's a baseball player."

Chavez then singled with two outs. Adam Rosales followed with a sharp grounder toward the right-side hole but Kinsler, still trying to find his defensive rhythm after missing six weeks with a sprained ankle, made a terrific sprawling stop to end the inning.

"The defense was great behind me tonight," Harden said.

It helps when the starting pitcher is at his best after struggling to find himself for the first month of the season.

"Rich is a proven veteran," Young said. "He's going to be fine. He knows exactly what to do and what adjustments to make. We have a lot of faith and a lot of trust in him. We knew it was a matter of time before he got locked in and found his rhythm."

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.