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Ranger reax: Harden feels like 'old self'

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The Rich Harden the Rangers paid $6.5 million for this offseason showed up Monday night.

"That was the Rich I remember seeing and facing in this ballpark," Michael Young said.

In other words, the guy that mowed down hitters, kept the opposing team off the scoreboard and won a bunch of games. Harden went seven innings, gave up two hits, didn’t walk anyone and had nine strikeouts in the Rangers’ 4-2 win. Maybe all he needed to do was step on the mound at spacious Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum to feel comfortable again.

"I felt like my old self there," Harden said. "I wanted to go out and clear my head and just make my pitches. I was thinking too much out there about my mechanics and everything. I just wanted to not take that out there and just pitch and throw it. It felt good."

Whatever the reason, this is the version of Harden that the Rangers want to see become a critical part of their starting rotation. It’s the Harden they need to become that piece that can become a reliable force every fifth day.

He had his full array of skills on display. He was ahead in the count and on the attack from the opening pitch. He mixed up his pitches, changing speeds when needed. His velocity, not at its usual speed for much of the season, was up. Harden was able to reach back and get the 95-96 mph fastballs over when needed. He hadn’t shown that kind of power on a regular basis this season.

Harden’s command, which went missing to start the season, was found among the echoing seats in Oakland. He didn’t walk a single batter, perhaps his most impressive achievement. Harden had walked nearly as many batters as he pitched innings before Monday – 23 walks in 23 2/3 innings.

It was an announced crowd of 8,874, the fewest folks for a game here since April 3, 2003, and small enough that Harden said he could hear some of their conversations. Harden gave them something to talk about, throwing first-pitch strikes to the first 12 batters he faced. He worked the inside and outside of the plate and kept his pitches down. He wasn’t afraid to let the hitters put the ball in play, but his pitches missed plenty of bats too. Harden had 16 swinging strikes. He didn't have any in his previous start.

"That was something I wanted to do," Harden said about getting ahead in the count. "I know their philosophy is to go deep in counts and take walks. I wanted to be aggressive and come right at them and make them swing the bat and make them put the ball in play. Defensively, the guys made some nice plays behind me. That's what I wanted to do instead of putting guys on."

Harden's only mistake was apparently missing the bag on a play at first in the second inning. Harden ran over to the bag but looked away and didn't touch it with authority. He said he grazed the bag but was upset with himself for giving the umpires a chance to call the runner safe. The umpires called Eric Chavez out and then huddled and overturned the call. Manager Ron Washington then got tossed for arguing the reversal.

"That actually helped me and got me going a little bit," Harden said. "I wasn't happy with myself. I did barely nick the base, but I can see how the umpire wouldn't see that. It was a mistake by me. I got mad at myself and I think it helped me."

Harden said he worked on arm extension as part of his mechanics between starts. Maybe that helped with the increased speed on his fastball. Of course, now the challenge is to keep that velocity and command at the level it was at Monday in his next start.

"I think just working with what I've been feeling and not necessarily try to think too much while I'm out there," Harden said. "Just know that it will be there and make my pitches. Simplify things."

Other reaction:

* RHP Neftali Feliz, pitching on back-t0-back rest, got through the ninth inning with an inherited runner at first for the save. "As he continued to pitch the velocity continued to creep up," Washington said. "The best at-bat was the one against [Eric] Patterson [for the second out]. Patterson started gearing up and he went right back to where he got him with an earlier pitch." Feliz ended up with a 99 mph fastball to strike out the final batter.

* 3B Michael Young was 3-for-5, his second three-hit game of the season. He drove in a run as well. "I felt fine," Young said. "My biggest thing is I want to stay the course, make my adjustments like I always do, not make any major changes and just keep grinding away."

* 1B Justin Smoak said he was looking for a fastball and got one middle-in to hit his homer in the ninth. He knew it was gone right away. "I hit it well," Smoak said.