Hello Rich! Good-Bye Barry?

One Oakland A's top of the rotation pitcher returned to the mound on Thursday at the Coliseum. Another A's ace will be making perhaps his final home appearance at the Coliseum on Friday. Meanwhile, the A's took three of four from the Cleveland Indians and reduced their magic number to four. The second-place Angels come to town tonight with the A's needing two of three games to clinch the division.

Rich Harden knew it was a big deal. He knew it was no ordinary start, both because of the playoff ramifications and because of what it meant to him.

If it didn't hit him when he woke up, it did when he arrived at the Coliseum on Thursday morning.

"It has been awhile," said Harden, who had been out since early June with an elbow injury. "But I tried not to get too worked up about it."

Harden's return exceeded the A's expectations. Other than a solo homer to Grady Sizemore in the third inning, he was nearly perfect. Harden struck out seven, walked one, and also allowed a bloop single in three innings.

"Awesome," roommate Huston Street said. "His stuff is unquestionable. The biggest thing was him feeling good and happy."

Harden threw 55 pitches -- 10 to Casey Blake alone in the first inning -- and that was it, since his pitch limit was 60. Harden's pitch count will expand to 75 Tuesday in Seattle, than 90 on the final day of the regular season in Anaheim.

That would allow him to start the fourth game of the division series and go over 100 pitches, even though the A's don't want to get too far ahead of themselves by confirming that.

While A's fans had a chance to welcome back one top pitcher in Harden on Thursday, they could be saying good-bye to another on Friday. Barry Zito's final regular-season start at the Coliseum will be Friday night against the Angels. Zito, a free agent who is widely presumed to out of the A's price range, is on turn to start Games 1 and 5 (if necessary) of the division series -- which would both be on the road, unless something drastic happens in the last week. The A's would need to advance into the second round for him to start at the Coliseum again in home whites.

Zito was the A's top pick in 1999 and he made his major league debut with the team in 2000. He is only the fourth pitcher in Oakland A's history to win more than 100 games for the club. Dave Stewart, Vida Blue and Catfish Hunter are the other three. His career record is 102-62 in 220 career starts for Oakland.

REPLAY: Rich Harden, in his highly anticipated return, struck out seven in three innings. Six relievers followed him, none getting more than four outs. Chad Gaudin earned the victory. Huston Street recorded the last three for the save in Oakland's 7-4 victory over Cleveland. Jason Kendall set a season-high with four RBIs on a pair of two-run singles in the fourth and sixth innings. Mark Ellis hit a sacrifice fly, while Marco Scutaro and Milton Bradley added run-scoring singles.

Friday's Notebook

--C Jason Kendall stole his 10th base of the year, which is the second-most by an Oakland catcher. Scott Hemond swiped 13 in 1993.

--1B Nick Swisher was hit on the right toe by a pitch in the fourth inning and looked uncomfortable circling the bases, but remained in the game.

--3B Eric Chavez's strained hamstring was feeling much better Thursday and he hopes to return to the lineup Friday for the potential clinching series against the Angels.

--3B Antonio Perez, filling in for 3B Eric Chavez, had a lower batting average (.100) in the sixth inning than pitcher C.C. Sabathia's pitch count (105-114) and nearly lower than Sabathia's best fastball (98 mph). Perez worked a nine-pitch walk.

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