ARLINGTON -- Dan Haren's drive toward winning his first American League ERA title appears to be sputtering in the home stretch. The Athletics' ace gave up five runs in defeat for the third consecutive start on Friday, laboring through only 4 2/3 innings of a 5-3 loss to Texas before 22,318 at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Perhaps more troubling, Haren admitted his confidence is being tested by his late-season slump.
"When guys get hit around, when I get hit around, you lose your confidence," said Haren, who has lost three consecutive starts for the first time this season. "There's times out there when I've felt that it's hard to get a guy out. Earlier in the year, it was easy." The last-place Rangers, who have closed to within two games of third-place Oakland in the AL West, certainly were hard on Haren, peppering him with 12 hits during his short stint. Haren also walked three, but struck out seven. "He pitched better than that," asserted A's manager Bob Geren. "It seemed like there were a lot of hits, but there weren't a lot of hard hits. A lot of balls seemed to find holes." Five of the hits off Haren went for extra bases, including a leadoff homer by Frank Catalanotto on Haren's second pitch of the game. Hard hits or not, there were enough of them to perforate the majestic ERA balloon Haren has been floating above the league for most of the season. Haren is attempting to become just the sixth pitcher in Oakland history to win an ERA crown, the first since Steve Ontiveros posted a 2.65 mark in the strike-shortened 1994 season. But by allowing 13 earned runs in his last 16 innings, Haren has put that quest in jeopardy. His ERA has swelled to 3.03, still tops in the league, but barely ahead of the Angels' Kelvim Escobar (3.04) and the Twins' Johan Santana (3.15). Any hopes of winning his first Cy Young Award seem to have expired as he has remained stuck on a career-high 14 wins since Aug. 21. "I'm still rooting for him to finish strong and win that award," Geren said. "He's still leading the league in ERA, isn't he? That's one thing that's more [telling] than wins-losses. When your team is below .500 but you're still leading the league in ERA, wins-losses shouldn't be the only measure of how you've pitched." True enough, but Haren also has at least eight other pitchers ahead of him in the other glamour categories of wins and strikeouts. Award voters are often swayed by playoff contenders and exceptional finishing kicks. But Haren is starting to look like a fading marathoner after 196 innings, 27 shy of last season's career high. "Physically, I'm fine," Haren said. "I mean, any pitcher who gets to the point I've gotten -- right around 200 innings -- is not going to feel as good as [he] did in April, that's for sure. But nothing hurts, there's no injury or anything. "It's just a matter of gathering myself. It's a tough time for me, and it's a tough time for the team. We're not really playing for anything, which is hard. I've never been a part of that, so maybe that's something to do with it. I've just got to gather myself for the last four starts of the year and make them quality." Geren said it is too early to declare the ERA crown is slipping from Haren's grasp. "He's been so good for so long, that when he gives up a few runs, it stands out," Geren said. "But he's thrown pretty consistently all season." And that consistency, Haren said, is where he has taken the greatest pride this season. "Obviously, it would be nice to [win the ERA title], but there's still a lot of time left," Haren said. "When I look back on this year, I've been consistent for the most part, except for the last few outings. I just want to finish out the year with that consistency that I've had all year. But it's hard. ... I've got to dig deep and make the most of these last three weeks." Catalanotto's 10th home run put Haren in an early hole in the first, and he dug it deeper by allowing Texas a three-run fourth. Back-to-back doubles by Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ramon Vazquez, followed by Catalanotto's RBI triple, put the Rangers ahead 3-0. Right fielder Jack Cust was in position to catch Catalanotto's drive to the wall, but missed the ball by inches when he jumped. The misplay proved even more costly when Michael Young slapped a two-out single off the glove of a leaping Mark Ellis, scoring Catalanotto for a 4-0 lead. Another single and a walk loaded the bases for the Rangers, but Haren finally ended the fourth with a strikeout of Gerald Laird. "He didn't have his stuff tonight," Catalanotto said of Haren. "He was giving us a lot of pitches to hit. He was hanging it up in the zone." Texas took a 5-0 lead in the fifth, when Hank Blalock tripled and scored on Catalanotto's two-out single. That sent Haren to an early shower, certainly disturbed if not yet despondent. "I never felt quite right," Haren said. "My stuff wasn't as sharp as it has been. Tonight, I didn't have much, and it looked like I didn't have much." Geren insisted Haren's confidence should not be eroding over three consecutive losing starts. "He's riding being promoted to the No. 1 starter, being the All-Star starter and leading the league in ERA in the middle of September," Geren said. "So, whether he finishes that way or not, he should still be very proud of what he's done and his confidence should be as high as it can be. I'm pulling for him to [win the ERA title]. But, either way, he's had a great season for us. You can't ask for much more than he's done." Oakland's offense lent Haren little inspiration Friday. Rangers rookie starter Edinson Volquez stymied the A's with a two-hit shutout for six innings. The 24-year-old was 1-6 with a 7.29 ERA in an eight-start audition last year and was sent all the way back to Class A Bakersfield at the start of this season. But he seems to have matured, physically and behaviorally, and is 2-0 with a 2.45 ERA in his first two starts since returning to the Majors. "We've seen him before in the past, but it looks like he went down to the Minor Leagues and sharpened up his game," Geren said. "His thing used to be command, and today he was throwing 95 [mph], had a good changeup for the lefties and spotted his fastball pretty well. If he pitches like that, they've found themselves a nice starter." Volquez departed after 87 pitches, and the A's finally ended the shutout against the Rangers' bullpen. They scored twice in the eighth off Frank Francisco and once in the ninth against C.J. Wilson, bringing the potential tying run to the plate three times. Jack Hannahan brought home one run with a sacrifice fly, but right-hander Joaquin Benoit got fly-ball outs from Kurt Suzuki and Shannon Stewart to end the game. Stewart went 1-for-5 and is 10-for-52 (.192) in his last 12 games. Catalanotto had homered, tripled and singled through five innings, but did not get a chance to become the fourth player in Rangers history to hit for the cycle. Despite a three-run lead, Texas manager Ron Washington sent Sammy Sosa up as a pinch-hitter for Catalanotto in the seventh, rather than let him face rookie left-hander Dallas Braden. The A's brought in right-hander Andrew Brown to induce a groundout from Sosa. "It's exciting any time you have a chance to hit for the cycle," Catalanotto said. "I was surprised to get pinch-hit for. But Wash did what he felt he had to do to win the game, and that is what's important right now."
Ken Daley is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.