The top highlight of 2010 for the Texas Rangers right-hander, however, came against the team that drafted him.
Harden tries for a repeat of his first start against the Oakland Athletics as he returns to the Bay Area on Saturday looking to pitch the Rangers to a fourth consecutive win.
A healthy Harden could help Texas (64-45) lock up the AL West title, an outcome that appears even more likely after extending its lead to 9 1/2 games over second-place Oakland with a 5-1 win in Friday night’s series opener. This is the Rangers’ biggest division lead since 1999, also the last year they won the West.
“You can’t take anything for granted,” ace Cliff Lee(notes) said. “There’s still a lot of season left. We want to clinch it as soon as we can. But a lot of things can happen. We can’t get complacent or content.”
Harden (4-3, 5.25 ERA) is unlikely to fall victim to complacency. He has struggled with control and efficiency this year, walking 45 in 72 innings, and he spent seven weeks on the disabled list with a strained left gluteal muscle.
“It feels good to get back out there on the mound,” Harden said. “I’ve been thinking about getting out there for a while. It’s hard not to think about it and get that first win out of the way.”
Harden was even better at Oakland on May 3, allowing two hits in seven scoreless innings and striking out nine without a walk in a 4-2 win.
It was the first time he had started against the A’s, who traded him to the Chicago Cubs on July 8, 2008, after Harden spent his first 5 1/2 seasons with Oakland.
“I was looking forward to pitching here,” Harden told the Rangers’ official website at the time. “It’s a familiar setting. Everything felt good. I know those guys and I know they take pitchers deep in counts and work walks. I just wanted to be aggressive and make them swing the bat instead of putting guys on base.”
Lee used a similar approach to neutralize the A’s offense Friday, limiting Oakland to seven hits without walking a batter in eight innings.
The A’s (54-54) rank 11th in the AL in runs and have been held to two or fewer seven times in their last 16 games, accounting for all but one of their losses in that stretch.
Gio Gonzalez(notes) (9-7, 3.69) goes to the mound Saturday having fallen victim to minimal run support lately. The left-hander struck out a career-high 11 without a walk in eight innings Sunday against the White Sox, but gave up all of Chicago’s runs in the fourth inning of a 4-1 defeat.
“You look at it bittersweet,” Gonzalez said. “I threw a complete game, we battled all the way through and kept the team in the game.”
Gonzalez also was sharp against Texas in his previous outing July 27, giving up one run in six innings, but the Lee-led Rangers outlasted him to win 3-1 in 10 innings.
He won his only home start against Texas on Aug. 4, 2009, working 6 2-3 innings in a 6-0 win.