ARLINGTON, Texas -- Rangers starter Rich Harden continues to struggle. His pitch count climbed above Sunday's temperature before the fifth inning was over. And it was hot on Sunday.
Harden gave up four runs (three earned) in five innings in a 9-5 loss. It was the ninth time in 12 starts this season that Harden failed to pitch six innings. He threw 111 pitches, pushing his average to 19.93 pitches per inning, third most among qualified AL starters.
"He still has to figure out a way to get us deeper in the ballgame," manager Ron Washington said. "He knows and we know it has to get better."
The last time Harden made it through six full innings was a gem in Oakland on May 3. He went seven innings and allowed no runs with nine strikeouts and, most important, no walks. That was supposed to be a turning point. But Harden hasn't generated any momentum. He is 1-1 with a 7.31 ERA in his six starts since that point. Opponents are batting .298 against him and he's allowed six homers to go along with 17 walks and 24 strikeouts in 28 1/3 innings (just over 4 2/3 innings per start). The team is 4-2 in those games thanks to a staggering 8.58 run-support average.
Harden's inability to eat innings has impacted the bullpen. Dustin Nippert has pitched in half of Harden's starts, and four relievers were needed for the final four innings in Sunday's 4-hour, 6-minute game.
So the question is: How much longer are the Rangers willing to leave Harden in the rotation if he can't pitch more innings? Right now, they have little choice but to wait until Derek Holland (left rotator cuff inflammation) returns from the disabled list. He's throwing off flat ground and progressing. June 15 is the first day he's eligible to return. Once he comes back, the Rangers could have a decision to make if Harden isn't pitching better.
Harden said he isn't contemplating the what ifs.
"I can't think about that," Harden said. "I have to go out and pitch well. Thta's what I'm trying to do. I can't worry about that."
Harden has become a foul ball machine. According to Elias Sports Bureau, only four AL pitchers have had more pitches fouled off. It seems that many teams simply take the approach that they'll foul off anything that is around the strike zone -- especially his off-speed stuff -- and show patience at the plate with Harden's inconsistent command.
Harden's been in a bunch of 3-2 counts after pitches are fouled off. That hasn't helped his high walk rate -- he has 40 walks in 59 innings, tops among qualified starters in the AL. According to Elias Sports Bureau, Harden is tied for fifth in the AL in plate appearances that went to a 3-2 count. Harden has gone to a full count 50 times, 22 which resulted in a walk. That's the most among the six AL pitchers with 50 or more 3-2 situations.
Harden insists he feels good physically. He said he's made some progress since the season began, throwing his off-speed stuff in more counts and getting better with his command. But the inconsistency is clearly frustrating him.
"That's the tough part," Harden said. "I do feel really good. I just have to turn this around."
Harden said he'll continue to look at video and see if he can find a flaw in his mechanics or approach. He mentioned that he started slowly last season but found his stride before injuries set him back. Harden actually had a decent April for the Cubs last year, but his ERA was 5.56 in May and just over 4.00 in June and July.
But midway through July, Harden started pitching better and posted solid numbers -- ERA around 3.00 and going six or seven innings -- until his season ended in mid-September. Still, he was going deeper in games from the beginning of 2009. He's not doing that in 2010.
Harden threw 111 pitches on Sunday. That came a day after Tommy Hunter threw 117 pitches in nine innings against the Rays. The Rangers aren't expecting complete games. But for an overworked bullpen, going six or seven innings can make a huge difference.
* It's worth noting that the Rangers took two of three from the team with the best record in the AL. They face Seattle for four games starting Monday.
* Matt Treanor had the first two-homer game if his career. "I'm happy for him," Washington said. Treanor got two days off before the series in Chicago and hit well. He got two consecutive days off earlier this weekend and hit well Sunday. Maybe there is something to getting him off his feet when possible. He has five homers this season, a career high. And his wife, Misty May-Treanor, won a volleyball tournament played at the same time as Sunday's game.
* Josh Hamilton had a cortisone injection in his right knee on Saturday, but pinch hit in the sixth inning (and had an RBI single) and stayed in the rest of the game.
* Sunday was the Rangers' longest nine-inning game of the season at 4 hours, 6 minutes. And it felt like it. It was their longest nine-inning game since a 4-hour, 9-minute contest in Cleveland in May 2008.