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Harden is back with A's competing to be starter

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP)

Rich Harden spent the postseason watching the Texas Rangers win a long-awaited AL pennant and reach their first World Series.

It was strange to suddenly be an outsider, and not to be part of it. He still considered those players his teammates, even if the Rangers had designated him for assignment after the regular season to give the right-hander his unconditional release.

Harden endured the frustration of yet another disappointing, injury-interrupted season - and went into the winter unsure of who might offer him a job. Turns out his career has come full circle: He returned to his roots with the Oakland Athletics.

Harden will report to spring training Tuesday in Phoenix hoping to make a case that he can still be a reliable starter for a club that knows just how dominant he is when pitching at his best.

He certainly still thinks of himself as someone best suited for the rotation - and one of the most intriguing stories around the A's this spring will be the competition for the No. 5 job in an already talented rotation.

''My preference is starting but I'm definitely open to pitching out of the pen, too,'' Harden said. ''I feel I can go out there and make 30-plus starts. I'm going to go out and worry only about what I can control, and that's how I pitch.''

The fifth spot is definitely up for grabs.

It could go to several candidates, including Bobby Cramer, Tyson Ross or left-hander Josh Outman, who missed last year recovering from Tommy John surgery but made a strong impression in the instructional league last fall.

''Rich is not really competing with anybody,'' manager Bob Geren said. ''He's just kind of competing against himself - however he comes in. If he comes in throwing the ball like he can, Rich can do anything. He's one of the best pitchers in baseball. He's nasty. This guy has great stuff. If he's strong and he's healthy, he can be one of the best starters in baseball, he can be one of the best relievers in baseball.''

For Harden, staying healthy is the big first step.

He is determined to stay on the field this season after being plagued by injuries for much of his eight-year big league career.

Harden received a $1.5 million, one-year contract in December to rejoin the A's, who selected the hard-throwing righty in the 17th round of the 2000 draft out of Victoria, British Columbia.

Harden went 5-5 with a 5.58 ERA in 20 appearances and 18 starts for the Rangers last season, when he struggled with injuries and control. After beginning the season as the Rangers' No. 2 starter, he walked 62 batters in 92 innings.

''I didn't just go through stuff at the end of the year. It was an off year for me,'' Harden said. ''I wished those guys nothing but the best. I watched every single (playoff) game. It's a little strange to watch it on TV. It was an outstanding group of guys and the players were some of the best guys I've played with. I think that's why the team played so well. Everybody was really close and got along and there was that chemistry.''

While many of the players he knew with the A's are gone, there still will be plenty of familiar faces in what is known as a loose, easygoing clubhouse that has its own share of good chemistry.

''I'm happy to be back here,'' Harden said. ''It feels like home. It's a comfortable place. Definitely the last year or two I thought about (returning to Oakland). When I came to play here last year I really enjoyed coming back and it felt good pitching here again. That's a big reason why this winter this was somewhere I wanted to end up.''

Harden would like nothing more than to return to his form from 2008, when he went a combined 10-2 with a 2.07 ERA in 25 starts between Oakland and the Cubs. Chicago acquired him on July 8 that year in a trade with the A's.

Harden worked this winter in Arizona with A's pitching coach Ron Romanick, regularly watching video from his standout '08 season.

''Just working hard to get back to where I need to be mechanically,'' he said. ''I'm feeling good and feeling strong, looking forward to starting spring.''

The 29-year-old Harden spent two stints on the disabled list in 2010, first from June 12-July 30 with a strained left gluteal muscle and later with right shoulder tendinitis.

Oakland saw him miss his share of time, too.

Harden went 1-2 with a 2.45 ERA in only 25 2-3 innings in 2007 because of an inflamed right shoulder, and didn't pitch after July 7 that year. He threw two simulated games late in the season with the hopes of making two final starts, but ultimately decided it wasn't worth risking further injury.

He was 4-0 in nine games in 2006, spending time on the disabled list with a strained back and then a strained elbow ligament.

Geren will approach the start of spring as though Harden is going to start. If that doesn't work out, Harden could fit in nicely in a deep, loaded bullpen.

''We have to look how he comes in, how he feels, how he's handling the workload and make that decision,'' Geren said. ''Obviously building him up first as a starter is what we'll do.''

The A's are hoping to only improve on an outstanding showing by their young pitching staff last year. With Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Dallas Braden - he pitched a perfect game against Tampa Bay last May 9 - and Gio Gonzalez leading the way, Oakland had an AL-best 3.56 ERA and also a league-leading 17 shutouts while holding opponents to a .245 batting average.

''From top to bottom it's one of the best pitching staffs in the big leagues. I don't think anybody would disagree with that,'' Harden said.

Is it Harden's turn to finally catch a break?

''I've had some injuries and there are some injuries that weren't injuries and stuff went on. I'm ready to go out there and pitch a whole season,'' he said. ''I definitely feel like I can. No. 1, I want to go out there and just pitch like I'm capable, like my '08 season when I worked with Ron through the whole winter and we changed some things around. That's the best I've felt in my career.''

Tagged: Athletics, Rich Harden

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