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Trumped Ace?
Joe Sheehan
September 08, 2008
The Brewers have every reason to be ecstatic with CC Sabathia, but the Cubs' Rich Harden has been just as dominant
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September 08, 2008

Trumped Ace?

The Brewers have every reason to be ecstatic with CC Sabathia, but the Cubs' Rich Harden has been just as dominant

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AN NL CENTRAL team pulls off a major deal well before the trade deadline, adding one of the best pitchers in the American League to its rotation and bolstering its run to the postseason. That pitcher goes on to dominate hitters, with an ERA under 2.00, and builds a case for Cy Young consideration in half a season of work. CC who?

The pitcher is Cubs righthander Rich Harden, who has matched the Brewers' CC Sabathia start for start, if not inning for inning, since being acquired (with much less fanfare than Sabathia) on July 8 from the A's for a package of low-ceiling prospects. Harden, available in no small part because of his unreliability (he appeared in 16 games and threw 72 1/3 innings in 2006 and '07 combined), has stayed healthy and buried the NL in a hail of 95-mph-plus fastballs and darting splitters. In nine starts for Chicago through Sunday, Harden was 4--1 with a 1.50 ERA, 75 strikeouts in 54 innings and a .163 batting average against. The Cubs won seven of those games and were 29--15 overall since Harden's first appearance on July 12.

It's not surprising that Harden, who was 5--1 with a 2.34 ERA for Oakland before the trade, has been effective. It is surprising that he's taken a regular turn in the rotation for this long. Harden, only 26, suffered an assortment of ailments from 2005 through '07 that kept him on the DL more than on the mound. Last winter he tinkered with his mechanics—he had been opening up too soon and dropping his back side, which put considerable strain on his throwing shoulder—and since returning from a sore lat muscle on May 11 has not missed a start. This season marks just the second time in Harden's six-year career that he's made more than 19 starts or thrown more than 130 innings.

When a player splits his season between two leagues, his value tends to be overlooked because his season stats are reset to a line of zeroes after the switch. In Harden's case that practice hides the fact that at week's end he was leading the majors with an overall ERA of 1.99, nearly half a run better than those of the AL and NL leaders, Cliff Lee of the Indians and Tim Lincecum of the Giants, respectively. He led all starters in strikeout rate with 11.5 per nine innings, and his 6.05 hits allowed per nine innings was far below Sabathia's 7.96.

However, whereas Sabathia has averaged nearly eight innings and more than 110 pitches per start as a Brewer, including six complete games, Harden has averaged only six innings and 99 pitches per outing. But then the Cubs don't see Harden in the same light as the Brewers view Sabathia—as a three-month rental who'll be a free agent at season's end. Harden came with a club option for 2009 at the bargain price of $7 million, which Chicago will surely exercise.

The deep and talented Cubs bullpen (SI, Aug. 25) allows manager Lou Piniella to handle Harden, who has a tendency to throw a lot of pitches even when he's throwing well, conservatively. By doing so, Chicago has gotten strong work from Harden and improved his chances of keeping healthy for what looks like a deep run into October.

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