PHOENIX – Mike Piazza rolled into spring training, took a couple of days to unhinge his swing, then stood in against new teammate Rich Harden, the sinewy right-hander whose pitches tend to disappear on hitters under the best of circumstances.
"I didn't touch a ball," Piazza said. "I thought it was me. I was like, 'Man, am I this bad?' Then I realized it wasn't just me."
Yeah, it's going around.
Less than two weeks to opening day, Harden is well-iced but otherwise sound, optimistic and having the kind of spring training that allows the Oakland Athletics to think about staying with the Los Angeles Angels in the American League West.
If any West team is going to pitch with the Angels, it will be the Harden-led A's, whose Big Three has been scattered across the NL, leaving enough starting pitching but little excess.
While he stands in the middle of the A's rotation, behind Danny Haren and Esteban Loaiza and ahead of Joe Blanton and, apparently, Joe Kennedy, Harden is the pivotal man, both to the rotation and the A's season.
He possesses a breadth of pitches delivered with such uncommon precision that San Diego Padres manager Bud Black, one of the most respected pitching teachers in the game and someone who saw plenty of Harden in the AL West, said, "His stuff is the best of anyone in the game. I would argue with anybody over just the total stuff."
The issue with Harden, on the cusp of his fifth big-league season, is less what he does on the mound – those seven strikeouts against the White Sox gave him 25 in 13 2/3 spring innings – than getting him to the mound, and keeping him there. Now, with Barry Zito having crossed the bridge, following Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder out of Oakland, Harden's health and productivity never have been more crucial.
Haren is reliable (68 starts, 28 wins in the past two seasons), and Blanton (64 starts, 28 wins) is pitch-to-contact fearless. But, among them, Harden is the guy hitters circle on the schedule.
"Those are days," Piazza said, "you get a walk, you're happy. Get an 0-for-3 instead of an 0-for-4, that's a good day.
"It shows how important he is to this team, with Zito gone. I pray he's out there the whole year."
Since the summer of 2004, his last full season, Harden is 22-7. He also has missed handfuls of starts because of back, elbow and off-shoulder ailments. A tender right elbow caused him to sit out all but nine starts last season, bringing further conjecture that small-framed pitchers rarely can throw with such force and not risk something coming undone, at the very least, this small-framed pitcher.
He sat after his start Tuesday wearing an ice outfit, soothing his back, shoulder and elbow. He had set up hard sliders and vanishing changeups with fastballs down and in and up and away, ignoring his splitter for an afternoon. He said he is whole again, and a comfortable smile seemed to confirm it.
"I feel great," he said. "Healthy. I can't stress that enough. I get asked that question a million times. Hopefully, once the season starts, it'll kind of back off. I guess it won't until I get a full season in. But, yeah, I feel good. Ready to get the season started."
When he arrived in Phoenix, Konerko had struck out four times in 49 spring plate appearances. By the third at-bat, Harden having already struck him out once on a high fastball and once on a slider away, Konerko was thinking survival, and struck out again.
"He might have the best right-handed stuff in the league," Konerko said. "For a guy who throws that hard, he's got good feel on his location. Most of the time, when you've got two strikes on you, you usually have one pitch in mind. He's got three different ways to strike you out. … And he does it the right way. Early, you'll usually get a pitch to hit. If you foul it off, you're in trouble.
"The only fight is him staying healthy and staying out there."
White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen stared out at Harden, this on a day Harden said he lacked his usual command, and later said, "If this kid stays healthy, he could be one of the best pitchers in the American League, easy. He's on the mound like he's been there for 20 years. He has that kind of confidence. But who wouldn't be confident with that kind of stuff?"
Along with a fastball that runs in the mid-90s (it was 94 Tuesday), Harden throws a changeup that for its arm speed looks just like his fastball, then falls like his splitter. In fact, even scouts, who sit directly behind the plate and have the advantages of perspective and not having to hold a bat, have difficulty separating the changeup from the splitter without a radar gun. And Harden has been experimenting with the tilt on his slider so that it can dart across the plate or dive into it.
"He's blessed with tremendous arm speed," Black said. "He's got a quick hand through the release point. And he's got one of those bodies that has life to it. A lot of times that equates to a live arm."
So, just as the Milwaukee Brewers' hopes of contending appear dependent on Ben Sheets, as the New York Mets await Pedro Martinez, as the Chicago Cubs used to hang on Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, the A's hand the ball to Harden. It's his turn.
"I definitely want to pitch a whole season and see what I can do out there," Harden said. "Nobody wants to be not pitching and injured."
Then he added, in case no one heard it the first thousand times, "I feel pretty good, healthy."