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Harden-boiled: A's hurler fans 7 in return, cooks Tribe

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -- Rich Harden wanted to keep going he felt
so strong after 55 pitches. Yet Oakland's star right-hander knows
he must pace himself in order to be on the mound in meaningful
games come October.

The Athletics are in position to clinch the AL West this weekend
against their biggest division rival -- and Harden is thrilled he
helped his team take a step closer to that goal.

Harden struck out seven in an impressive return from the
disabled list and Jason Kendall hit a pair of two-run singles in
Oakland's 7-4 victory over the Cleveland Indians on Thursday.

"It felt great to be out there," Harden said. "I was a little
nervous. I didn't know if my body would hold up."

It sure did.

The first-place A's reduced their magic number to four to win
their first division title since 2003 and lead the idle Los Angeles
Angels by seven games heading into the teams' key three-game series
starting Friday night. Oakland watched the Angels win the West by
clinching in the Coliseum each of the past two years.

"Win two out of three and we could be the team celebrating out
on the field instead of them," Oakland's Nick Swisher said.

Chad Gaudin (3-2) pitched 1 1/3 innings for the win, Marco
Scutaro and Milton Bradley both singled in runs and Mark Ellis
added a sacrifice fly for the A's, who won for the seventh time in
eight games. They moved 26 games over .500 (89-63) for the first
time since Sept. 5, 2004, when they were 81-55.

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Grady Sizemore hit a solo home run in the third against Harden
and the Indians pulled within 4-3 on consecutive RBI singles by
Victor Martinez and Ryan Garko in the fifth. But Oakland batted
around in the sixth and added three more runs.

Harden pitched three strong innings in his first start since
June 4, his sixth outing of the year overall and only his second
since April 26 because of two stints on the disabled list. Harden,
who won 10 games last season and 11 in 2004, will start again
Tuesday with his pitch count increased to 75.

He had five straight strikeouts during one stretch, striking out
the last batter in the first and then the side in the second --
fanning Jhonny Peralta, Joe Inglett and Andy Marte on pitches of 95
mph, 96 and 95 that inning.

Harden allowed one run, two hits and walked a batter, then left
for the clubhouse afterward to high-fives and handshakes from his
teammates.

Closer Huston Street entered with no outs in the ninth after Jay
Witasick allowed back-to-back singles to Marte and Kelly Shoppach,
then the reigning AL Rookie of the Year finished for his 36th save
in 44 chances. After a single loaded the bases, Street gave up a
sacrifice fly to Jason Michaels to make it 7-4.

Fans cheered when Harden headed to the outfield to warm up more
than an a half-hour before the first pitch and gave him another
loud greeting when he was announced with the starting lineup.

He was reinstated from the DL before the game after recovering
from a strained ligament in his right elbow.

The A's are hopeful Harden's health will hold up so he can pitch
in the playoffs. Oakland has missed the postseason the last two
years after four straight trips, all of which they lost in the
first round.

"Having a healthy Rich Harden being able to go out and pitch
seven innings is absolutely a tremendous plus for the club,"
manager Ken Macha said before the game of Harden's potential down
the stretch. "Assuming that happens."

Harden's not ready to make predictions about his status for the
playoffs.

"It's early," he said. "I don't want to talk about that. I'm
pitching Tuesday and that's all I'm focusing on. As far as the
playoffs, I'll worry about that when it happens."

C.C. Sabathia (11-11) allowed seven runs -- four earned -- and
seven hits, struck out five and walked three in 5 1/3 innings. The
burly left-hander, who grew up in nearby Vallejo, lost for the
third time in four starts and fell to 1-4 in 10 career starts
against the A's.

"If anything, it's being too alive," Sabathia said. "On the
surface, I'm relaxed to get a chance to come home. It just hasn't
worked out for me."

Kendall's sixth-inning single -- the catcher's third hit of the
game -- chased Sabathia. His four RBI were a season high.

The A's won their third straight in the series after losing the
opener Monday night and improved to 6-1 so far on their final
homestand, which ends against the Angels.

Oakland's Jay Payton went 0-for-4 to have his 10-game hitting
streak snapped.

Game notes
A's 3B Eric Chavez sat out his second straight game with a
strained left hamstring, though Macha said Chavez felt better.
Chavez planned to play Friday against the Angels. ... Sabathia has
a 6.97 ERA in six career starts in Oakland. ... Kendall's four RBI
were his most since driving in four runs April 23, 2002, against
the Phillies while with Pittsburgh.