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Inside Baseball | AROUND THE HORN / ROSS NEWHAN

Harden Meeting Expectations

August 10, 2003|AROUND THE HORN

The question needs to be asked: How much more dominant would Rich Harden be if he weren't tipping some of his pitches?

As it is, the Oakland A's touted right-hander has lived up to expectations since joining the "big three" of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito in mid-June as what General Manager Billy Beane called "the best pitching prospect" of his tenure.

"What he had done in the minor leagues was even more impressive than the three guys we already had up here," Beane said. "That doesn't mean he's going to be better. It just means he had done more leading up to the major league level than anyone we've had since I've been here. I mean, prospect is still a 'potential' word, but so far he's making me look somewhat smart ... kind of, anyway."

Indeed. A 17th-round draft choice in 2000, Harden began the year in double A, retiring all 39 batters he faced at that level before going 9-4 with a 3.15 earned-run average with the triple-A Sacramento River Cats, initially extending his string of batters retired to 57. In 329 minor league innings over a three-year span, he struck out 395.

The A's have won all four of his starts, and Harden, who faces the Chicago White Sox today, is 3-0 with a 1.33 ERA, even though he has been giving away some of his pitches.

"I'm convinced he's been doing it since the day he got here," pitching coach Rick Peterson told the San Francisco Chronicle. "We consistently address it in the bullpen, and he's getting better [at hiding his pitches]."

One thing is certain: Harden is representative of another impressive group of young pitchers who have debuted this year or are in their first full season.

Among them: Mark Prior, 23, who is 9-5 with a 2.87 ERA for the Chicago Cubs; Brandon Webb, 24, who is 7-4 with a 2.43 ERA for the Arizona Diamondbacks; Horacio Ramirez, 23, who is 8-4 with a 4.27 ERA for the Atlanta Braves; Jerome Williams, 21, who is 5-2 with a 2.62 ERA for the San Francisco Giants, and, of course, the sensational Dontrelle Willis, 21, who is 11-2 with a 2.56 ERA for the Florida Marlins.

Willis retired 23 of the last 26 batters he faced in beating the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday night, 7-3, and continued to shrug off his success.

"I just want to play and get a hot dog," he said. "That's how it's always been."

Willis vaulted directly from double A. Harden had a couple months at triple A, but the expectations kept building.

"Every pitch he's thrown this year, he's had a lot of focus on him," Beane said. "He's had to deal with attention from Day 1 and he's responded at every level.

"Not only does he have the physical talent but he's amazingly mature at 21, a real tough kid mentally."

The addition of Harden, of course, further separates the A's from the Angels and the contention of Manager Mike Scioscia in 2001 that he had a threesome in Jarrod Washburn, Ramon Ortiz and Scott Schoeneweis that could match Hudson, Mulder and Zito "pitch for pitch."

The A's "big three" is now a "big four" or "fab four," take your pick.

"I'm not calling it anything," Beane said. "I'm just calling myself lucky.

"I mean, they're already trying to invent some names, but I'll let other people dub it. I don't think it should be self-dubbed from within the organization. That would be a recipe for ridicule if something happened."

*

Back to the Bronx

The New York Yankees spent three years trying to find a right-handed setup man who could do what Jeff Nelson had done in helping them win four World Series.

Finally, after signing Steve Karsay for $22.25 million and trading for Jay Witasick, Mark Wohlers, Dan Miceli and Armando Benitez, among several others, they replaced Nelson with Nelson, reacquiring him in the Wednesday waiver deal that sent Benitez to the Seattle Mariners.

The Yankees, with all of their subsequent moves, would have found it cheaper to have given Nelson the three-year, $10.65-million contract that lured him to Seattle as a free agent, rather than holding the line at three years and $9 million, but there were problems in the relationship between Nelson and Manager Joe Torre.

Nelson said he was delighted to be back and that he and Torre were fine.

"Nellie is Nellie," a laughing Torre told New York reporters. "You get the whole package."

He referred to an intense competitor who speaks his mind, as he did in criticizing the Mariners for failing to acquire help at the nonwaiver trade deadline.

Seattle officials insisted that Nelson's comments had nothing to do with the trade, and that Benitez was simply more accustomed to the closer role as they near the critical weeks of the pennant race with no certainty as to when closer Kazuhiro Sasaki will return from a long stint on the disabled list.

Of course, Benitez's inconsistency in that role prompted the New York Mets to trade him to the Yankees, and his continuing inconsistency setting up Mariano Rivera prompted the Yankees to trade him to the Mariners.

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