Notes: Harden mixes it up with sluggers

Notes: Harden mixes it up with sluggers

PHOENIX -- Early in Spring Training, A's manager Bob Geren said he wanted a "bland" camp, and that's exactly what he's gotten thus far. Everyone reported in shape, nobody's suffered an injury of note, there's been not an ounce of controversy, and very little excitement.

So what happened on one of the two lower fields at the Papago Park complex late Saturday morning qualified as thrilling: Rich Harden on the mound with Mike Piazza, Eric Chavez and Milton Bradley taking turns at the plate.

"I was surprised to see them," said Harden, who was expecting to face some lesser lights in his first batting practice session of the spring. "It's nice just to have hitters standing in there."

Standing in there is about all that Piazza, Chavez and Bradley did. As Geren noted Friday, such sessions are actually more for the pitcher's benefit.

"It looked like not too many of them wanted to swing," Geren said. "And I don't blame them. ... I talked to some of the guys [after the workout], and they said he looked tremendous."

With Harden throwing nothing but fastballs and changeups during his 32-pitch outing, Piazza, Chavez and Bradley only took a few hacks each, most of them drawing air. None of them got the ball in the air, and only two balls reached the outfield grass.

"Rich was throwing some cheese; firm to quite firm," said Adam Melhuse, Harden's catcher for the session.

Harden's velocity was indeed excellent, and it didn't go unnoticed by first baseman/outfielder Nick Swisher.

Upon showing up late in Harden's session after emerging from an adjacent batting cage, Swisher loudly expressed mock indignation that he wasn't invited to the star-powered party. Bradley essentially called his homer-dance buddy's bluff, offering to step aside if Swisher wanted to stand in for a while.

"I'm good," Swisher said. "I'll stay in that cage I was in all day with Harden on the mound," said Swisher.

Harden missed high with several fastballs, but that's to be expected this early in the spring. His two main concerns were how he felt ("Great," he said) and not hurting anyone.

"My first big-league camp, first live BP, I hit [Chris] Singleton in the tricep and he was hurt the whole first half of the season," Harden said. "Not what you want to do as a rookie."

After getting a healthy dose of Harden's explosive stuff, Piazza, Chavez and Bradley had to face Oakland's anti-Harden in righty Justin Duchscherer, whose success is based on pinpoint command of his less-than-overpowering repertoire.

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"We get Harden and then Duchscherer?" Bradley said to nobody in particular. "Who set this up?"

Star camper: Righty starter Dan Haren has drawn raves for his work here, and everyone is understandably curious about Harden as he tries to bounce back from another season shortened by injuries, but lefty reliever Alan Embree is commanding every bit as much attention as his younger staffmates.

While Harden was throwing on one field Saturday, Embree was on another, and Geren made a point of watching them both. Facing Jason Kendall, Mark Kotsay, Lou Merloni and Bobby Crosby, Embree again wowed with his mid-90s fastball.

Kotsay seemed particularly impressed, at one point watching an Embree heater run away from him before stepping out of the batter's box and asking the veteran southpaw, "Is that a natural cut?"

Told that it was, Kotsay stepped back into the box and softly said, "Nice!"

Kendall called the offseason signing of Embree, whom he often faced when they were both in the National League, "a huge pickup."

"He still throws 94, 95 miles an hour, and with his experience, he's going to be a great guy for the young pitchers to have around," Kendall said. "He's been around a long time, but it's not like he's just hanging on, trying to make stuff up. He's still blowing.

"The ball just explodes out of his hands, and it's effortless. I'm excited to catch him in a game."

Dribblers: Crosby wasn't allowed to take any swings during live BP, but he did get through another day of soft-toss in the cage without any back pain, and Geren said hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo hopes to get Crosby into regular BP early next week.

The A's will play two intrasquad games next week. The first will be played Tuesday at Papago Park, the second on Wednesday at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.

Cactus League play opens for the A's next Thursday in Maryvale, Ariz., against the host Brewers, and Geren said lefty Brad Halsey, one of the candidates for the No. 5 spot in the rotation, will get the start. Righty Jason Windsor will also work in the game.

The best part about Spring Training 2007, Geren said, has been checking with the athletic trainers to see if there are any new injuries to report. "The guys say, 'No' and just smile," said the skipper. "I like that part of my day."

A's players and coaches had to suit up and pose for pictures in their home whites early in the morning. After the workout, Halsey was hanging out in the weight room sporting a dark, pinstriped sports coat and was asked why he was so dressed up. "It's photo day," he said with a smile. "I didn't know we had to wear our uniforms."

Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.