Don't overlook Matt Harrison's outing

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Try, if you can, to look through all the smoke created by the Texas Rangers' offensive fireworks this weekend -- and believe me, where there's smoke there's a bunch of bats scorching with this lineup -- and focus on perhaps the key performance of the weekend: the start of left-hander Matt Harrison.

That might seem like a strange thing to home in on after watching the Rangers rack up 20 extra-base hits, including 11 homers, against the Boston Red Sox, the team picked by many to take away the American League championship trophy sitting in the fourth-floor offices at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

But as powerful as this lineup appears to be (Boston pitchers don't even want to talk about it), the Rangers' long-term prospects for repeating as AL West champions and making another memorable playoff run rest with the back end of the starting rotation.

"We know we're not going to hit four homers a game all season long," said Michael Young, who had an RBI in the Rangers' 5-1 sweep-capping win Sunday. "That's not going to happen. But if Harry can keep us in games, we're going to be tough.

"He and [Derek] Holland are both going to be huge parts of our team. We know what we can get out of C.J. [Wilson] and Colby [Lewis] and even Tommy [Hunter] when he gets back. But those two young lefties, if they can pitch to their capabilities and stay healthy, we're going to be in great shape. Harry did that for us."

It was a different Harrison on the mound Sunday than the one who started the two previous seasons in the rotation. This one has more confidence, is stronger mentally and more composed. He knows it, his teammates know it and now the Red Sox know it, too.

"He located," Boston's Dustin Pedroia said. "He pounded his ball in on righties, threw changes down and away, threw breaking balls for strikes. He has great stuff, man. He pitched well."

Harrison gave up one run on five hits with two walks and tied a career high with eight strikeouts in seven innings.

His slider, which he said he throws at different speeds, was particularly effective. He mixed his velocity well on his fastball, threw timely changeups and kept hitters off balance. But it was what he did when things got tough that could prove critical as the season progresses.

Harrison's first hiccup occurred in the fifth inning, when he made a high throw to first on a weak ground ball by Jarrod Saltalamacchia. With the Rangers up 2-0 at the time, it was the kind of thing that would have rattled the old Harrison more.

"He didn't show emotion, just got a ground ball after that and got out of the inning," catcher Mike Napoli said. "He had good composure."

The ground ball double play erased the mistake and kept Harrison in his rhythm. Two innings later, trouble popped up after a leadoff walk to Kevin Youkilis and a couple of singles.

Harrison made what appeared to be a nice, low strike to Darnell McDonald on a 3-2 pitch to get out of the inning after allowing just one run. Andres Blanco was on the infield grass headed to the dugout. Manager Ron Washington started to celebrate. But it was called a ball, and McDonald went to first.

Despite lefty Darren Oliver warmed and ready to face left-handed hitting Jacoby Ellsbury, Washington left Harrison in.

"He had a lot of confidence in me today," Harrison said. "I guess he knew I was going to be able to get out of it."

Harrison was clearly amped up, throwing a 94 mph fastball during that final at-bat and getting Ellsbury to chase a hard slider for the strikeout.

"We had our one shot and didn't capitalize," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said.

The Rangers' offense added to the lead in the bottom half and the game was effectively over. Washington gave pitching coach Mike Maddux a big high five in the dugout after the strikeout and the manager gave that large smile of his to his pitcher.

"I think they can tell I'm mentally tougher this year," said Harrison, who gives credit to the self-help books he read over the winter and discussed during spring training, including "The Mental ABC's of Pitching" by the late sports psychologist H.A. Dorfman.

"I'm out there to taking it one pitch at a time and slowing down. Usually in those situations in the past, I'd be on rapid fire and keep throwing a ball and not really have a clue as to what I was doing."

Last year, in one of Harrison's early starts, he allowed a late homer to ruin an otherwise great performance. It was an example of how he couldn't finish the job or couldn't quite make the pitches he wanted when he needed them. That was not the Harrison on the mound on Sunday. And that had his teammates and club president and CEO Nolan Ryan excited.

"It was important for him and for us," Ryan said. "For us to win, the rotation has got to keep us in ballgames. He stepped up today and gave us innings and didn't really give them, except that one inning, a chance to get their foot back in the door.

"I think he came this spring motivated and determined to win a position and make his presence felt. I just think he thought about it this winter and said, 'There's an opening down there and I want it and I'm going to do everything I can to win that position.' And he did."

Harrison's outing only serves as more motivation for Holland, who gets his turn Monday night against the Seattle Mariners.

"It was good to see him do that," Holland said. "I know we've got a lot to prove. I feel like I've got to show I belong in this rotation and do what I can to help the team win."

Harrison did his part. And though the offense likely sent Chuck Morgan and the in-game presentation staff begging for a larger fireworks budget, it's outings like Harrison's that could determine whether there's another ring ceremony this time next year.

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.