SURPRISE!, Ariz. — Growing up in Canada, Rich Harden(notes) could always rely on his country's national sport. When Harden grew frustrated, hockey offered opportunities to hit people with something other than a baseball.
But sometimes, when Harden needed more violence, bus trips with hockey teammates would feature videos of old mixed martial arts bouts. The guys would vicariously release anger cheering for their idols, cagefighters such as Mark Coleman. They'd also cheer for blood.
"It was from back in the day, when there were less rules and no weight classes," Harden said appreciatively.
Relatively quiet and usually friendly Rich Harden, the new leader of the Texas Rangers pitching staff, has a blood lust?
A little bit. A younger Harden enjoyed MMA so much that he saw himself stepping into the octagon to compete someday.
"I was so into it growing up, it was something I could see myself doing once baseball ended," said Harden, who's now 28. "I always thought it would be kind of fun."
Harden insists he's never actually stepped into the ring to fight, and probably never will, now that MMA has become, using his word, "popular." Plus, baseball already has taken a toll on his body.
"Everybody's doing it now and it's the 'cool thing' so I haven't been into it lately," Harden said. "And it's changed."
Harden — and he's mentioned this before — says he still misses the physical aspects of hockey. Such a dimension barely exists in baseball.
"Occasionally you get a chance to block the plate," Harden said with a grin.
But there's no checking in baseball. Unless it's for the sign.
"In hockey, if you get frustrated, you can ... I always played better. I always played better when I was angry," Harden said. "I'd get more physical."
With nobody to smash into the boards and detached from cagefighting, what does Harden do these days with his frustration?
He thinks it through.
"I've learned to kind of control it," Harden said. "When I was younger, I'd almost be out of control. Some days, it would make me a better pitcher. Others, it would work against me."
Harden had a 4.09 ERA this past season with the Cubs, his worst since 2006. He also hit six batters, a career high. Coincidence?
Harden also has made a conscious effort in recent season to not throw 100 mph on every pitch, which he used to do simply because he could. Changing speeds and hitting spots, he's learned, is more important than brute velocity.
And his strikeout rates the past two seasons are higher than ever.
"Still, occasionally I'll get frustrated and throw it hard," Harden said. "It's hard not to. I don't know what else to do. It feels good."
Big ol' BLS hat tip to @ari_bo_bari.
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Dave's desert trek continues this weekend. See where he goes next by following him on Twitter — @answerdave.