Harden had the luxury of quitting while he was ahead. A late, fluky rally left Zito for dead.
Harden, making a rehab start for Triple-A Sacramento, struck out seven of the 10 batters he faced in three dominant innings and now seems a lock to return to the Oakland rotation next week in Seattle.
Zito took a one-hitter into the seventh inning at McAfee Coliseum and ended up with yet another night on which the numbers that appeared in his final pitching line didn't come close to telling the real story.
"That's the best I've seen Barry in a long time," A's third baseman Eric Chavez said after the Phillies scored five runs in a strange seventh inning on the way to a 6-1 victory. "He's been outstanding pretty much all year, but tonight was like he was when he won the Cy Young [in 2002]. He was that good. ... It's pretty unfortunate to squander that performance.
"I hope he gets locked in like that. We're going to win a lot of games if he keeps performing like that."
A's outfielder Eric Byrnes, who didn't play Friday and thus got to watch Zito from the dugout rather than left field, was equally agog.
"Z was unbelievable," Byrnes said. "I remember thinking to myself after a couple innings, 'If there's ever a night that he's going throw a no-hitter, it's tonight.'"
Zito struck out six while facing one batter over the minimum through the first four innings and didn't allow a hit until Chase Utley doubled after a one-out walk to David Bell in the fifth. Bell scored on a swinging bunt by Todd Pratt that Zito initially mishandled, setting the tone for the dink-fest to come.
After working a perfect sixth, Zito gave up an end-of-the-bat single by Pat Burrell to open the seventh, and what followed was just plain strange.
Employing a pronounced shift with lefty slugger Jim Thome at the plate, the A's had Chavez where shortstop Bobby Crosby normally plays and Crosby shaded toward the first-base side of second. Thome poked a ground ball that both infielders appeared to have a bead on before glancing at the other and pulling up as the ball dribbled into the outfield.
"I thought we were going to get at least one out," Zito said before injecting some gallows humor: "You don't see many ground balls that [the infielders] have to call."
Chavez said it was simply bad luck, noting that because he and Crosby were in the unnatural shift, they didn't have a natural reaction to the play.
A's manager Ken Macha called it the key play of the game.
|"That's the best I've seen Barry in a long time. He's been outstanding pretty much all year, but tonight was like he was when he won the Cy Young [in 2002]. He was that good. ... It's pretty unfortunate to squander that performance."|
|-- Eric Chavez on Barry Zito|
"It appeared to be a squibber there, but somehow it got through," he said. "If we field that and turn a double play, it's still a one-run game."
Instead, Burrell made it all the way to third, then scored on a wild pitch that moved Thome to second. Bell then looped an RBI single into left field, just over Crosby's glove, and Utley chased Zito with an RBI double.
"We weren't exactly killing Zito," said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel. "We got one off the end of the bat, another through the hole, and Bell hit that bloop single. I liked the way he was pitching."
Reliever Kiko Calero was greeted by a two-run double from Pratt, Tomas Perez followed with a drag-bunt single, and Jimmy Rollins capped the rally with a sacrifice fly.
Scott Hatteberg's RBI double off lefty Aaron Fultz in the eighth finally got the A's on the scoreboard, but it wasn't nearly enough to keep Zito from taking his team-high eighth loss of the year. In those losses, Oakland has scored a total of four runs with Zito still in the game.
"It's ridiculous how well he's pitched and how [unrewarded] he's been," Chavez said. "I don't care what his numbers are; everyone in here knows that he's been pitching his [tail] off pretty much all year."
Zito once again refused to whip out the violin for himself, waving off any suggestion that his string of tough losses represent some sort of negative cosmic pattern.
"I take every game individually," he said. "I don't like to clump them together."
He did like what he heard of Harden's outing upstate, though. Harden threw 36 pitches, 30 for strikes, and finished his night with 24 pitches in the bullpen.
"Overall, I felt pretty good out there," Harden said. "I just wanted to get a good feeling throwing my fastball. I just wanted to locate. ... I probably have more command now than I did before I was injured."
As for the strained oblique muscle that put Harden on the disabled list May 14, he said, "I felt nothing. If I had any pain, I wouldn't be throwing at all."
Macha said a decision on Harden's return would be made Saturday, and signs are pointing to Tuesday or Thursday in Seattle, with Thursday the more likely scenario.
"He's another guy in the rotation you can count on," Zito said. "It's exciting."
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.