Harden came within five outs of perfect game

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -- Rich Harden tried to make small talk between innings and nobody would cooperate.

He asked rookie Joe Blanton about his truck and received a one-word response. Nobody dared jinx the dazzling show Harden had going on the mound.

The spunky Canadian carried a perfect game into the eighth inning Thursday night, finishing with a masterful two-hitter in the Oakland Athletics' 6-0 victory over the Texas Rangers.

"Yeah, I'd say that was probably the best I've felt," Harden said. "Complete games are pretty rare for me. I don't think I threw one slider -- all changeups and splits."

And what changeups those were: One was clocked at 91 mph and another at 90. He threw a 99 mph fastball in the first inning.

"It was unbelievable," Blanton said. "That's one of the best performances I've ever seen."

Harden (6-4) was five outs from the 18th perfect game in major-league history when Alfonso Soriano hit a clean, broken-bat single to center. It was the closest a big-league pitcher has come to a no-hitter this season. Harden was the first to make it through seven innings, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

"I was a little disappointed, but I still had a game to pitch," Harden said. "That's how baseball works. It was pretty cool the way the fans were into it. It got me pumped up a few times."

The crowd gave him a warm standing ovation, and he quickly recovered. He allowed a two-out single to David Dellucci in the ninth before retiring Michael Young on a groundout to complete his first career shutout. Harden threw 61 of his 81 pitches for strikes in a game that lasted just 2 hours, 11 minutes. And one of those pitches didn't even leave his hand. A ball was called when he put his bare hand to his mouth on the mound.

"I got a base hit to see if my team could wake up," Soriano said. "He had a good rhythm all night. When we finally got a hit, it was a little late."

It was the fewest pitches by an Oakland starter in a complete game since 1988, when the team began counting.

"[Scott] Hatteberg's comment was, 'Rich is extra pumped up because hockey is back on ice,'" manager Ken Macha said, referring to Harden's second love. "It was as well as I've ever seen him pitch."

The 23-year-old right-hander, in his third major-league season, was efficient from the start in his second career complete game -- the other came in a 3-2 loss to Texas on May 2. He got through the first inning on 11 pitches and the sixth on five and finished with eight strikeouts.

"By the second time through, we began to realize he could be really on," Texas All-Star Mark Teixeira said. "He was coming after us all night."

Harden lost last Thursday at Toronto for his first defeat in four starts since coming off the disabled list June 21 after recovering from a strained muscle on his left side but was brilliant on this cool Bay Area night.

He had a long wait -- 24 minutes -- before the top of the seventh as the Rangers changed pitchers twice and dealt with a minor injury to left-hander Ron Mahay. After center fielder Laynce Nix made a diving catch of a line drive by Jason Kendall, Rangers manager Buck Showalter and the trainer sprinted to the outfield, had him make a few throws and then replaced him with Richard Hidalgo.

The crowd of 17,987 booed loudly as the Rangers took their time making the switches. Harden stretched against the wall and jumped up and down around the dugout.

He received extra warmup tosses because of the long half-inning.

"Most of the time he was ready to go before I put the sign down," Kendall said. "We were on the same wavelength the whole night."

The report was that Mahay cut his index finger and Nix jammed his left shoulder and is day-to-day.

Eric Chavez homered and Hatteberg doubled, singled and scored twice in the A's fourth straight victory.

Chavez hit a solo shot into the right-field seats leading off the second, hitting a 3-2 pitch for his 13th homer of the year. Nick Swisher had an RBI groundout four batters later for the surging A's, who won for the 14th time in 17 games. They swept the White Sox in Chicago last weekend.

Oakland has become known for its strong play in the second half and is determined to keep it going.

The A's made it 3-0 in the fifth after Chan Ho Park's throwing error. He fielded Mark Kotsay's routine grounder back to the pitcher but overthrew Soriano at second trying to start a double play. Bobby Crosby also drove in a run in the inning when he grounded into a fielder's choice.

The Rangers gave ace Kenny Rogers an extra day to recover from Tuesday's All-Star Game, starting Park in his place for the opener of the four-game series. After the game, Rogers was bumped back another day to Saturday, while John Wasdin will go Friday night.

Park (8-4) was done after five innings and fell to 0-5 in seven starts at the Coliseum and 1-7 overall against Oakland.

Game notes
A's pitching coach Curt Young has never seen a perfect game. Macha has seen three as a player and a coach. ... Randy Johnson threw the last perfect game in the majors, beating Atlanta 2-0 for Arizona on May 18 last year. ... Catfish Hunter pitched the only perfect game in Athletics history, defeating Minnesota 4-0 on May 8, 1968. ... Harden struck out five of his first nine batters.