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Harden looking to stay healthy for Rangers in 2010

SURPRISE, Ariz. (AP) — No one ever has questioned Rich Harden's stuff. His health has been a different story.

"I know if he's healthy he'll perform," Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington said Sunday. "The big thing is to keep him healthy."

Health and Harden rarely have intersected since the right-hander came up to the major leagues as a member of the Oakland Athletics in 2003. He was 5-4 in 13 starts that first season and followed it with an 11-7 campaign with 167 strikeouts in 189 2/3 innings across 31 starts in 2004.

Then the injuries came — a strained left oblique in 2005, a strained back in 2006 and 2009, a sprained elbow ligament in 2006 and a strained shoulder in 2007 and 2008.

"In the past it's always been something," Harden said.

With the litany of injuries, the 28-year-old's workload on the mound has decreased: nine starts in 2006, four in 2007 and a pair of 140-plus inning seasons the past two years.

Overall, Harden has been on the disabled list seven times the past five years. Yet the potential remains. Harden has averaged 9.35 strikeouts per nine innings over the past seven seasons, more than any pitcher with at least 125 starts in that span.

After a 9-9 season in 25 starts for the Chicago Cubs last year, the Rangers signed Harden to a two-year deal with a mutual option for 2011.

"I was excited because I've seen him good and he's been good when he's healthy," Washington said.

For the first time in a half-decade, Harden has come to spring training healthy. And that has given him considerable reason for optimism.

"This is the first winter in a while that I've been able to begin the whole training program and build up strength," Harden said. "Easily, this is the best I've felt in a while."

One of the ways Harden believes he can help himself approach his career-best 189 2/3 innings is by reducing his pitch count per inning.

"I can pitch a lot more innings if I can get deeper in each game and be more efficient with my pitches," Harden said. "Even when I have a clean inning I'm still throwing a lot of pitchers."

Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux said the higher pitch counts are a result of Harden's electric stuff.

"Guys who have low pitch count innings have good location but they also put the ball in play," Maddux said. "Guys with good stuff, the batter can't put it in play. They just foul it off, foul it off, foul it off."

If nothing else, Harden should need little time getting back into the routine of the AL West after spending the first five-plus years of his career in the division.

"It's nice to get back to a familiar place," Harden said. "Our team's going to be pretty strong."

NOTES: OF Nelson Cruz was the latest position to player to report early, joining fellow OFs Josh Hamilton and Brandon Boggs and 1B Chris Davis, among others. 2B Ian Kinsler arrived mid-morning on Saturday. ... Boggs, coming off a dislocated left shoulder, has been cleared to participate fully in all drills and has performed all except sliding. ... LHP Derek Holland, who limped off the training field with a mild right knee sprain on Saturday, said the knee is feeling "way better" but still will have a precautionary MRI on Monday.