Only so much stock can be put in Cactus League performances, with real judgment being reserved for the regular season.
In his first outing that counted in the standings, Harden tamed the Seattle Mariners over seven innings Wednesday night to help the A's roll to a 9-0 victory at Safeco Field, their first of 2007 and the first managerial "W" for new skipper Bob Geren.
"He's unbelievable," second baseman Mark Ellis said of Harden. "I don't want to jinx him, but everybody knows how good he is. His stuff is incredible."
Ellis wasn't too bad himself, tying a career high with five RBIs. His bases-loaded double was the key blow in a five-run second inning, in which the A'sbatted around against Seattle starter Miguel Batista. Then Ellis drove in two more runs in the fifth with a double into the left-field corner that made the score 8-0 and put Geren's first win on ice.
The rookie manager had no idea what he was walking into as he entered the winning clubhouse. A mob of players doused him over the head with cans of beer to mark the occasion.
"It was seven or eight of us," shortstop Bobby Crosby said. "I think it was (Alan) Embree and (Jay) Witasick's idea."
The hallway in front of A's clubhouse smelled like a Budweiser brewery afterward, and Geren was still drenched when he addressed the media.
"It was an ambush," said Geren, who fielded a congratulatory call from his oldest son, Bobby, with a camera still stuck in his face. "I guess I'll have to take a longer shower."
After two defeats in the Pacific Northwest to begin the season, the A's got some good vibes rolling as they boarded a plane for Anaheim, where they begin a four-game series tonight against the Angels.
Harden set the tone Wednesday, keeping a crowd of 22,816 quiet most of the evening.
After how the right-hander set down hitters in spring training, it wasn't surprising Harden was able to do the same to Seattle. What was different about this outing was the economical way in which Harden dispatched the Mariners.
Sure, his fastball was popping Jason Kendall's glove as it always does. Yes, his stuff seemed to have the Mariners thoroughly perplexed. But Harden's strikeout total was a modest seven. As tantalizing as Harden's spring training numbers were he whiffed 29 of the 68 batters he faced and fashioned a 1.53 ERA Harden felt he was working too hard at times. He was piling up strikeouts but also was piling up high pitch counts because he went deep in counts.
On Wednesday, Harden walked just two and threw 64 of his 94 pitches for strikes. He was perfect through three innings and set the Mariners down in order four times.
"What was amazing was he got around 90 pitches, and he threw one at 98 (mph)," Geren said. Harden, who hails from nearby Victoria, British Columbia, said he had 12 people in the stands. He came in 4-1 with a 1.49 ERA lifetime against the Mariners, and especially likes pitching in Seattle's cool weather.
"I tend to feel stronger later in the game," Harden said. "It feels natural to me. It's what I grew up in."
The A's gave Harden an early cushion to work with. It was primarily Ellis' doing, but he had plenty of help. Shannon Stewart had two hits and two runs, Milton Bradley added two hits and two RBIs, and Bobby Crosby collected two hits and two runs and notched the A's first stolen base of the year.
Rookie Jay Marshall relieved Harden and pitched a scoreless eighth, and closer Huston Street made his first appearance, retiring the Mariners in order to preserve the shutout.
How they scored
Athletics second: Piazza singled. Chavez doubled, Piazza to third. Batista balk, Piazza scored, Chavez to third. Swisher struck out. Crosby hit by pitch. Buck walked to load bases. Ellis doubled to score three runs. Kendall singled, Ellis to third. Stewart struck out. Bradley singled, Ellis scored. Athletics 5, Mariners 0.
Athletics fourth: With two outs, Stewart singled. Bradley doubled, Stewart scored. Athletics 6, Mariners 0.
Athletics fifth: With one out, Swisher walked. Crosby singled, Swisher to third. Buck struck out. Crosby stole second. Ellis doubled, Swisher and Crosby scored. Athletics 8, Mariners 0.
Athletics sixth: Stewart hit by pitch, to second on wild pitch. Bradley flied out. Piazza grounded out, Chavez walked. Swisher singled, Stewart scored, Athletics 9, Mariners 0.
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