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Columnist
If healthy, no mistaking where Harden can take Cubs
By Barry Rozner | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 8/12/2008 12:07 AM

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It's never been a secret that Rich Harden is among the best pitchers in the game.

In fact, he might be the best - when healthy.

But keeping him on the field has been something of a mystery, and so far the Cubs have solved it with a mixture of extra rest and short pitch counts.

If that continues, if Harden can stay on the mound and throw the way he's capable, it's simply hard to imagine this Cubs team falling short of the World Series.

The Cubs can probably sense this, and so they're watching the 26-year-old ace very carefully.

"He's obviously a special talent and you hope he can stay healthy,'' said GM Jim Hendry, "because if he can, there's not many better out there.''

We'd go so far as to say none, though rarely a week goes by without questions raised regarding Harden's arm.

"He's not hurting at all. It's all good so far,'' Hendry said. "He's very happy with how he's feeling and he's developed a really good relationship with our trainer, Mark O'Neal, and our strength coach, Tim Buss.

"He's been honest about his history and he's developed a real trust with our staff, so everyone's on the same page.

"He says he feels great and he's thrilled so far.''

Harden hasn't been good since he got here. He's been spectacular, his stuff worthy of no-hit possibilities in each start but one.

Last time out, he allowed 4 runs on 8 hits and didn't finish 6 innings, perhaps because he threw 105 pitches in his previous outing, something the Cubs will undoubtedly be more aware of after seeing the results.

In his second start with the Cubs, he threw 112 pitches, but then only threw 87 and 5 innings in his next appearance.

Over 5 outings since arriving, his pitch total is averaging 98.6, but the Cubs don't need to take his temperature following an extended outing to know that 90 is about where they'd like him to stop most days.

"(Pitching coach) Larry (Rothschild) and (manager) Lou (Piniella) have used really good judgment and been careful, and the one time they took him deep, the next time they pulled him early,'' Hendry said. "He's actually not happy when they take him out and he wants to go more, but he also understands we want to be careful.

"We've tried to manage his days, too, like this week he's going on the seventh day, which ought to be great for him, and we'll continue to try to do that.''

Harden enters tonight's game in Atlanta with a 1-1 record and sparkling 2.10 ERA in his 5 Cubs starts, to go along with a brilliant 14.1 strikeouts per 9 innings, the highest of his career, and a staggering WHIP of only 1.03, the lowest of his career.

He absolutely shut down the Braves when he saw them while with Oakland earlier this season, and Atlanta manager Bobby Cox called Harden the best pitcher he's seen all year.

So how in the name of Bill Bonham and all that's holy, did the Cubs get him?

Simple. He could be done for the season with any pitch he throws, and it's the only reason he's not still in Oakland.

"He reminds me of Woody when he was young,'' Hendry said of Cubs closer Kerry Wood, another frequent visitor to the disabled list. "He's got such great arm speed and it's so fast that it can cause problems.''

But Hendry insists there wasn't anything about Harden the Cubs didn't know when they made the deal.

"(Oakland GM) Billy Beane was very honest and up front about everything, and told me what he thought about whether Rich could hold up and how to monitor him,'' Hendry said. "I give him a lot of credit for how completely forthcoming he was during the process.''

That's nice, but it won't make the Cubs feel any better if they lose a starter who can throw 100 mph.

"I don't really try to do that anymore,'' Harden said. "That's more when you break in and are trying to impress people, but I don't feel like I have to do that.

"I've learned I can be successful as I get older, with less velocity and more control, and it takes a lot of stress off the arm, too.''

That should give Cubs fans hope that Harden can survive long enough to get through October. But it wouldn't be a bad idea for the Cubs to stop messing around and blow the division away already, so that they can give players like Harden some extra time to get ready for the postseason.

"If we're fortunate enough to lock it up early or get out to a big lead, maybe we can do more,'' Hendry said. "But I think it's working out great the way it is so far.''

That's good, because with a healthy Harden, it's simply very difficult to imagine a Fall Classic without the Chicago National League entry.

We'd say it's darn near impossible for the Cubs to fall short of an N.L. flag, but knowing how that sort of confidence frightens the masses, we'll just leave it at this:

Keep Rich Harden on the mound, and let him worry about the rest.

brozner@dailyherald.com