Before Neftali Feliz quelled a brewing rally with 96-99 mph heat (nailing down his fourth consecutive save opportunity), and before Frank Francisco stumbled to the tune of single-homer-walk one day after declaring that he had 'fixed' a malignant hitch in his delivery and was back on the path to sustainable success, and before Justin Smoak clobbered his first major league home run batting righty, there was the Good Rich Harden -- a pitcher diametrically opposite from his early-season alter ego, showcasing all of those admirable qualities that were in absentia through his first five hypertension-inducing starts.
Despite being one of the staunchest advocates of the "Harden is concealing an injury and struggling to compensate for this in his pitching mechanics" theory, understand that I derive nothing but happiness from having my pessimistic outlook shot down; Good Rich Harden is a treasure capable of fronting any number of major league rotations, and him being right is tantamount to him being an enormous asset for Texas, but then you don't need me to tell you that. The real operative question to ask is what does "being right" mean in this context?
After averaging 88-89 mph with his four-seam fastball in his two most recent starts (the apparent culmination of five starts' worth of velocity deterioriation), Harden rebounded to 91.8 mph on Monday evening, topping out at an astonishing 95.6 mph -- a figure which would be more astonishing if not for the seeming reality that Sportvision's Pitch f/x pitch classification system has historically clocked pitches several miles per hour faster than what is typical in other American League ballparks. Even adjusting for this variation, however, Harden's maximum velocity likely sat comfortably in the 93-94 mph range -- not the apex of what he's physically capable of recording, but still very good.
More flooring, however, was the greatly improved command. We had all borne painful witness to the deleterious effects of Harden badly/repeatedly missing his spots, sometimes by more than two feet and frequently on both the vertical and horizontal axes. This was not the case last night, however; while he was still prone to elevating his pitches and catching a bit more of the plate than preferred at times, there was dramatic overall improvement, and the quality of his stuff was such that he did not require pinpoint location in order to step on the Athletics' necks to the tune of seven innings of two-hit, zero-walk and nine-strikeout baseball. This was literally day and night.
Harden attributed the razor-sharp effort to little more than "clearing [his] head and [making his] pitches," an ordinarily tired platitude which may actually apply well here; of course, knowing what we know about the psychology of pitching, having the opportunity to deal in a familiar/comfortable setting -- in a very pitcher-friendly environment, no less -- against an inferior offense may well have furnished him with the distinct mental edge necessary to get over the hump, in which case I'd like to him replicate these results back in Arlington against a legtimate offense before deigning to declare that he's "back," as it were. As far as taking the first step back in the right direction, though, this was just about as good as it gets, and that's really all that we can ask for.
Quick Hits: Check out Josh Garoon's excellent work on actual wOBA vs. expected wOBA over in The Clubhouse; it just might brighten your outlook on the Rangers' offense ... Baseball Time in Arlington has finally eclipsed the 1,000-follower counter on Facebook, which means we can all finally die happy; as an aside, follow me (@BBTiA) and/or Jason Parks (@ProfessorParks) on Twitter to read all the other delightfully provocative stuff we have to say ... I haven't yet decided how to address this, but can we all just agree right now that the one huge gaping hole in the Rangers' defense is at third base?