Notes: Harden likely to pitch Sunday

Notes: Harden likely to pitch Sunday

OAKLAND -- A day after Rich Harden declared himself ready to pitch in the big leagues for the first time since leaving an April 21 start with a strained back muscle, A's manager Ken Macha hedged only slightly when asked if Harden was still slated to return to the rotation Sunday against the Twins.

"We'll probably have a decision on that for you tomorrow," Macha said Thursday before the opener of a four-game series against Minnesota at McAfee Coliseum. "In all likelihood, he'll probably pitch on Sunday."

Speaking to the Sacramento Bee after pitching two dominant innings for Triple-A Sacramento on Wednesday in Las Vegas, Harden, who gave up one hit and struck out three while throwing 24 strikes among his 36 pitches, was more certain.

"I felt good enough today where I can go Sunday," he said. "There were a few pitches I missed, but for the most part I feel pretty happy with the way I am throwing. ... That was the big thing, just to get my command back a little bit."

Harden started the game for the River Cats and gave way to fellow rehabbing righty Esteban Loaiza, who allowed two earned runs on five hits and one walk while striking out four over 4 1/3 innings.

Loaiza, who has been out with a strained left trapezius since leaving an April 23 start against the Angels, threw 80 pitches (52 strikes), and Macha said he got a favorable report on the performance.

The A's were most concerned with Loaiza's velocity, which was in the low 80-mph range before he was placed on the disabled list. The Bee reported that his fastball was clocked at "up to 96 mph" Wednesday, but Macha suggested that must have been a misprint.

"That would be a pretty big story, 96. Esteban's a 90-92 guy," Macha said. "I was told he threw six pitches at 90, and that's good news."

The next step for Loaiza -- he'll either make one more rehab start or return to the rotation early next week -- should be determined within a day or two.

Draft talk: The A's don't have a first-round pick in the First-Year Player Draft for the first time since 2000 because they had to give their No. 1 to the Nationals as compensation for signing Loaiza as a free agent over the winter. Eric Kubota, their scouting director, concedes that a team is far more likely to find a future star in the first round, but he isn't willing to concede that the club can't uncover a hidden gem.

Many of Oakland's current regulars -- Barry Zito, Bobby Crosby, Nick Swisher, Joe Blanton and Eric Chavez --- were top picks, but Harden was a 17th-round selection, and he's worked out quite nicely.

"You can make a large impact from the second round down," Kubota said Wednesday during batting practice. "And we think there's a lot of big leaguers down there."

As such, the A's -- at No. 66 overall -- will be making their first pick later than they have since the team moved to Oakland, and have prepared just as diligently as ever. Kubota estimated that he's written about 170 reports on prospective draftees, and the scouting department as a whole has written about 600.

"We're really not changing anything," Kubota said. "Obviously, we're not getting as in-depth with the guys we know aren't going to be available, but we always get excited about the draft. This is what we work for all year. We've worked just as hard, seen as many games and done as much traveling, as we always do.

"[But] it is very different for us this year. It's going to be an interesting experience, waiting around for 65 picks."

Who's on first: First baseman Dan Johnson went 3-for-9 in the three-game series against the Royals, but he was 14-for-69 (.203) over his 21 games prior to the Twins series and is batting .196 overall.

With Harden, Loaiza and outfielder Milton Bradley expected to come off the DL soon, the A's will have some corresponding roster moves to make, and while Macha recently said the subject of Johnson being sent down to Sacramento to rediscover his stroke hasn't been broached, he didn't exactly give Johnson a vote of confidence Thursday.

Asked about the possibility of backup catcher Adam Melhuse getting some playing time at first base, Macha said, "That's being considered."

"Right now, Dan Johnson is our best defensive first baseman, and I like defense, but that's an area where you need some [offensive] production," he continued. "This is about production ... and Adam has a bit of a track record with producing in the limited playing time he's gotten.

"Sometimes you have a necessity."

Adding to the feasibility of Melhuse seeing time at first, Oakland on Thursday recalled catcher Jeremy Brown from Sacramento while formally placing second baseman Mark Ellis (broken thumb) on the DL.

Johnson, who grounded into an inning-ending double play in his first at-bat Thursday, hit his third homer of the year in the seventh inning.

Dribblers: Bradley (strained oblique) took early batting practice on the field Thursday and looked good from the right side of the plate, but he cut short his work from the left side and might not start a rehab assignment this weekend as planned. "It would have been a lot better if he said, 'I feel great; I'm ready to go,'" Macha said. "So he's still in the trainer's hands right now." ... Of promoting Brown instead of another position player to replace Ellis, Macha said, "This could be a day-to-day thing. If there's ever a need at a particular time, we have a pretty liberal roster situation right now." If Macha's comments are any indication, infielder Mike Rouse and outfielder Charles Thomas are the next River Cats in line for a promotion. ... The comic buzz generated by Jason Kendall's home run on Wednesday, his first fun ball since 2004, hasn't quite died. Somebody on the team convinced the folks in charge of the message boards at McAfee to post the following during batting practice: "Congratulations Jason Kendall on your first Oakland home run!"

Coming up: A's righty Kirk Saarloos (2-3, 5.57 ERA), in what could be his last start before returning to the bullpen, takes on Twins lefty Johan Santana (4-4, 3.46 ERA) in the second game of the series on Friday. The first pitch is set for 7:05 p.m. PT.

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