"I'm losing a friend," Curt Young said on Thursday. "When you work with a player that long, you always hate to see them go. Rich is a great person and a great pitcher."
When he was appointed as the A's pitching coach in December of 2003, Young was handed four of the best pitchers in all of baseball. The Big Three of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito made up the major chunk of Young's highly touted rotation, while Harden was the heir apparent.
The 2004 season was the first for Young in his current role and Harden's first full year in the bigs, combining for a season full of several adjustments.
"Well, you become their friend first, and then their coach," Young said.
It's a process that's worked wonders for the 48-year-old Young, who is in his 21st year with the Oakland organization, which includes 12 years as a player and four as a Minor League coach. Needless to say, he's been around the confines of McAfee Coliseum long enough to know what works -- and what doesn't.
"We like to think we have a good process with the routine our pitchers have in between starts," he said. "We try to make it so there are no surprises in the game and the pitcher feels like he's faced every batter a million times before."
A good process begins with a good foundation, one that Young and his fellow coaches do not take lightly, even if it takes an entire season -- or half a season, as with newcomer Sean Gallagher, who came over from the Chicago Cubs in the high-profile six-player deal that sent Harden away.
"It really is a process when learning new pitchers," Young said. "You can't do it all in Spring Training or in the first month. After each start, you have to get the feel of how they are mentally and physically. And then you have to determine if it was a good start or a bad one, and constantly work from there."
Mechanics are only part of the equation. The mental part is what keeps a pitcher throwing consistently every five days.
"I tell every one of them they need to be comfortable in this stadium," he said. "It is a pitcher-friendly place, and if you feel comfortable, your talent is going to come out."
If numbers say anything about Young's coaching method, it's safe to say he's doing something right. During his first four seasons, the A's pitching staff allowed the fewest home runs in the American League, ranked second in opponent batting average and third in ERA.
This season, Young and his youthful arms are on track to post even better numbers. The Big Three and Harden may have said their goodbyes, but the A's are pleasantly content with the fresh faces of Greg Smith and Dana Eveland, who join reliever-turned-ace starter Justin Duchscherer, veteran Joe Blanton and the 22-year-old Gallagher to combine for a Major League-leading 3.47 ERA entering Thursday's game.
And while Gallagher has yet to make his first start in an Oakland uniform -- that will come Friday against the Angels -- Young already sees the youngster fitting in just fine in the A's rotation.
"It looks like he's got a real impressive arm," Young said. "His stuff looks very much above average. Coming to a new team can be a bit of a shock, so I understand he's still going through that whole process, but I'm sure he's also real excited to get out there."
Young is a bit eager, himself, to watch the new arm -- and, of course, to make a new friend.
"It looks like he's got a good head on his shoulders," he said. "We've already had the chance to talk, and I'm sure we'll become friends fast.
"They're all my friends."
Jane Lee is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less