AN NL CENTRAL teampulls off a major deal well before the trade deadline, adding one of the bestpitchers in the American League to its rotation and bolstering its run to thepostseason. That pitcher goes on to dominate hitters, with an ERA under 2.00,and builds a case for Cy Young consideration in half a season of work. CCwho?
The pitcher isCubs righthander Rich Harden, who has matched the Brewers' CC Sabathia startfor start, if not inning for inning, since being acquired (with much lessfanfare than Sabathia) on July 8 from the A's for a package of low-ceilingprospects. Harden, available in no small part because of his unreliability (heappeared in 16 games and threw 72 1/3 innings in 2006 and '07 combined), hasstayed healthy and buried the NL in a hail of 95-mph-plus fastballs and dartingsplitters. In nine starts for Chicago through Sunday, Harden was 4--1 with a1.50 ERA, 75 strikeouts in 54 innings and a .163 batting average against. TheCubs won seven of those games and were 29--15 overall since Harden's firstappearance on July 12.
It's notsurprising that Harden, who was 5--1 with a 2.34 ERA for Oakland before thetrade, has been effective. It is surprising that he's taken a regular turn inthe rotation for this long. Harden, only 26, suffered an assortment of ailmentsfrom 2005 through '07 that kept him on the DL more than on the mound. Lastwinter he tinkered with his mechanics—he had been opening up too soon anddropping his back side, which put considerable strain on his throwingshoulder—and since returning from a sore lat muscle on May 11 has not missed astart. This season marks just the second time in Harden's six-year career thathe's made more than 19 starts or thrown more than 130 innings.
When a playersplits his season between two leagues, his value tends to be overlooked becausehis season stats are reset to a line of zeroes after the switch. In Harden'scase that practice hides the fact that at week's end he was leading the majorswith an overall ERA of 1.99, nearly half a run better than those of the AL andNL leaders, Cliff Lee of the Indians and Tim Lincecum of the Giants,respectively. He led all starters in strikeout rate with 11.5 per nine innings,and his 6.05 hits allowed per nine innings was far below Sabathia's 7.96.
September 7, 2008
However, whereasSabathia has averaged nearly eight innings and more than 110 pitches per startas a Brewer, including six complete games, Harden has averaged only six inningsand 99 pitches per outing. But then the Cubs don't see Harden in the same lightas the Brewers view Sabathia—as a three-month rental who'll be a free agent atseason's end. Harden came with a club option for 2009 at the bargain price of$7 million, which Chicago will surely exercise.
The deep andtalented Cubs bullpen (SI, Aug. 25) allows manager Lou Piniella to handleHarden, who has a tendency to throw a lot of pitches even when he's throwingwell, conservatively. By doing so, Chicago has gotten strong work from Hardenand improved his chances of keeping healthy for what looks like a deep run intoOctober.
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In 1988 the A's helped usher in the era of thethree-out closer when manager Tony La Russa started using Dennis Eckersley forone inning or less, and 29 of the righthander's 45 saves came in thatsituation. Twenty years later A's skipper Bob Geren may be ushering out the erawith his use of rookie Brad Ziegler. The sidearming Ziegler, 28, had six savesin his first six chances—three of which came in two-inning stints. Over thelast five seasons only nine relievers have had three two-inning saves in aseason compared with 42 pitchers in '88 alone. Ziegler appeared comfortable inhis new role: 9 2/3 innings, an 0.93 ERA in his six saves. If Ziegler maintainshis effectiveness, other managers might follow Geren's lead and finally alterhow they use closers so their teams get more innings from their bestrelievers.