Sunday, April 10, 2011

Harang's comeback

San Diego son Aaron Harang is 2-0 to start his Padres career, both wins coming at Petco Park.

See, life does have a sense of fair play.

Petco Park, where Harang's pitching and three Padres home runs denied the Dodgers a sweep today, owed Harang a favor, inasmuch as he overtaxed his arm in one of those endless Petco games three years ago.

"I kept telling my teammates, just get me one run, and I'll make it stand up," Harang told me last month, recalling the horrors of May 25, 2008.

Shut out for six innings by Padres long reliever Josh Banks, the Reds never gave Harang that run, so he kept pitching, and pitching, and pitching as an emergency reliever. In all, he fired 63 pitches over four innings, only three days after he'd thrown 103 pitches as a starter.*

*Here's where the old farts say something like, "So what? These pitchers today are babies. I  remember when Bob Gibson (or Dizzy Dean or Mordecai Three Fingers Brown) threw three shutouts in a week, and one of those games was in a blizzard." Codgers: Today's pitchers aren't trained to shoulder heavy loads on short rest.

Harang told's Corey Brock that counting the warmup pitches he threw in Petco over the three days here in May 2008, his total tally was some 400 pitches.

So which Reds pitcher started four days later? Harang. And the Pirates waxed him.

Next came a 1-2 punch -- shoulder weakness that didn't put Harang on the disabled list but led to overcompensations, from which he recovered not in 2008 or 2009 or 2010 with the Reds, but in spring training with the Padres, who had signed him for $4 million last December. There were other complications, include an appendectomy in 2009 and back spasms that twice put him on the DL in 2010.

Harang isn't blaming Reds manager Dusty Baker, who'll be in Petco tomorrow, but he said the unusual stress of May 2008 "took a toll" that rippled.

"I got in some bad habits because my shoulder was weak and I was never able to figure it out and get it back in line," he said.

"It was one of those things where I'm just a gamer, I'm going to take the ball whenever I can get it. It was one of those situations where we didn't have any relievers left. I volunteered, as did (Reds starter Edinson) Volquez."

Thank goodness for Volquez, or the Reds and Padres might still be playing that game at Petco. A budding ace, Volquez entered in relief and gave up a game-winning home run to Adrian Gonzalez in the 18th inning, nearly six hours after the day's first pitch. Volquez, who had started against the Padres two days earlier, would have reconstructive elbow surgery in 2009. Tomorrow, he'll bring a 7.36 ERA into his start against the Padres.

Should the Padres go deep into extra innings this year, you may see someone like catcher Nick Hundley pitch in relief before you see Harang, who still remembers details from Cincinnati's late-inning futility against the invincible Mr. Banks.

"That game wore me out and I don't think I ever recovered from it with my mechanics and arm slot," he said. "After that, I could never find that groove from where I was before. The last couple of years had almost been where I was trying to figure out where I was before."

The Padres have treated him like royalty, lining him up fourth to start the home opener in late afternoon shadows that made it more difficult for hitters to see. He responded with six innings, allowing one run in the 3-1 victory over the World Series champion Giants.

Today, the right-hander drew a patchy Dodgers lineup that no one would confuse with the Yankees and exploited it to the tune of six-plus inning with three hits and two runs (one earned) allowed.

Tougher tests await the San Diego State alum. Yet, to think, I told Harang in March that I wondered when the Padres signed him if his fastball could still break a plane of glass, given his heavy workloads before the problems of May 2008 and his 5.32 ERA and career-low strikeout rate last year.

"I still have my arm, my velocity hasn't dropped off," he replied. "I did work a lot of innings, but I was pretty efficient with my pitch counts."

Over his final three years with Cincinnati, he was 18-38, not what the Reds had in mind when they issued Harang a four-year contract for $36.5 million in early 2007.

And Harang admitted that he tried to live up to every penny the Reds guaranteed him.

"I felt like I was putting a lot of pressure on myself the last couple of years in Cincinnati, trying to hold up my end of the contract and being a top guy there for awhile," he said. "I put too much pressure on myself.

"It's weird," he added. "I guess I look at this past offseason as, it was my time to leave Cincinnati. I really enjoyed my time in Cincinnati. It was great for me and my family. The fans were good, the city was good to us, so it definitely has a spot in our heart for us. But this was a good change of scenery."

In early March, Harang said that he and Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley made tiny adjustments that restored him to nearly optimal form.

"I feel good," he said after today's victory. "Now I've just go to keep it there for the rest of the year."

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