Taking out Rich Harden was right move

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The only column on the linescore that Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington was worried about Monday was the run portion. The only history that concerned him was that of his team ending a postseason drought that dates back to a sweep at the hands of the New York Yankees in the opening round in 1999.

So Washington did the only thing he could with two outs in the seventh inning Monday: He pulled starter Rich Harden during a no-hitter. Harden had thrown 111 pitches and just walked Michael Cuddyer on four pitches. He had come off the disabled list before the game after dealing with right shoulder tendinitis, and the game was still close at 3-0 with the dangerous, left-handed hitting Jim Thome coming up.

"If he had a more efficient pitch count, I'd have left him in," Washington said. "But if he leaves one in the wrong spot to Thome, it's a one-run ballgame and no telling if things would have changed. He was trying to stay in, of course, but that's why I'm the manager. I made the decision. If it turns out to bite me, I've got to live with it, but right there it's about winning the ballgame."

The Rangers won the game 4-0. And they nearly made history anyway as Matt Harrison came in for the lefty-lefty matchup with Thome and got him to fly out and Darren O'Day pitched a perfect eighth that included two strikeouts.

After the Rangers clawed in another run in the eighth, rookie closer Neftali Feliz came on to try to preserve the first combined no-hitter in club history and the first in the majors since the Houston Astros did it to the Yankees in 2003. But with one out in the ninth, three-time batting champ Joe Mauer squared up an 0-2 fastball that Feliz left high, ending the no-hit bid.

The single up the middle past diving shortstop Elvis Andrus caused a collective groan from the 22,757 in attendance at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Most of them were on their feet, and many had their cameras poised and ready to take a snapshot of history.

"I was mad at myself," said Feliz, who dropped his head as the ball bounded into center field just past the second-base bag. "But I had to keep going and get the job done for my teammates."

Rangers president Nolan Ryan, who threw 12 one-hitters to go along with his seven no-hitters, sat in the front row and thought he was going to see the club he now part-owns get a slice of history.

"When I looked at who was going to hit in the ninth, I was worried about Mauer," Ryan said. "He's a good hitter, and with Feliz's fastball, you feel like if he leaves a ball in the hitting zone, he's going to have a shot at it."

Ryan supported Washington's decision to pull Harden when he did.

"Ron didn't have a choice but to go out and take him out," Ryan said. "You have to protect the player and look at what's best for the overall team. Ron did what he had to do, and I knew obviously it wasn't going to be a fan pleaser, but that's what you have to do. Ron did the right thing, and Rich knew that."

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire knew exactly what Washington was thinking. On Aug. 15, Gardenhire pulled starter Kevin Slowey after he went seven innings and hadn't given up a hit. Gardenhire joked Monday that someone else could take some heat for pulling a pitcher in the middle of a no-hit bid.

"We know it's the right thing to do," Gardenhire said. "If I'm Ron Washington there, the guy just comes back in his first start off the DL. He's protecting his pitcher. Everyone wants to see a no-hitter, unless you are accountable for a guy's arm, and really, you'll never know what we go through as managers."

Harden had perhaps the best description of his night, calling it "effectively wild."

He had five walks to go along with no hits and no runs in 6 2/3 innings. His changeup was working particularly well, and he got some balls up but was able to get keep his control in check enough to get out of jams. He had leadoff walks in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings but got double plays in two of those innings to remain unscathed.

"I got back to going out there and feeling like I had a good arm slot and was just throwing the ball," Harden said.

Washington didn't make the pitching change until after he went to the mound and talked to Harden, who tried to plead his case to pitch to Thome and at least get through seven innings.

"He just told me that we have to look past this game and have to be strong down the stretch and that I had to make a start in five days," Harden said. "I knew that, especially because I haven't been consistently out there."

Harden needed that kind of start. He had to earn the chance to start again after a rough season, and he did what he had to in gaining the trust of his team. He'll get another shot this weekend against his old team, the Oakland Athletics.

Pitching continues to keep this team in games. And it wasn't just the starter Monday. Harrison knew he was facing one batter and pitched like it, getting aggressive against Thome.

"I wanted to get my out and do my part," Harrison said. "We all knew there weren't any hits yet."

O'Day thought about that fact as he warmed up in the bullpen.

"By the time I got in there, I didn't think about it," O'Day said. "After I was finished, I started to go up the tunnel to work out and came back, thinking, 'I want to be a part of this.'"

But while the pitchers were disappointed about missing the no-hitter, they were pleased to get a win. The Rangers are not only trying to win the American League West and clinch a playoff berth, but they are battling Minnesota for the second-best record among the AL division leaders.

Why does that matter? Because the team with that mark gets home-field advantage in the opening round against the wild-card opponent, assuming it's a team from the AL East. The Rangers are now 1 1/2 games behind the Twins in that race.

"We have to win games, and we did that tonight," said outfielder David Murphy, whose two-run triple in the first put the Rangers on top for good. "The no-hitter would have been nice, but our job is to win. That's our focus."

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.