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03/28/08 10:00 AM ET

Reds turn to unsung ace for Opener

Harang emerging as one of the top pitchers in the NL

SARASOTA, Fla. -- When it comes to Reds Opening Day, there was never any doubt who would get the start.

Aaron Harang will get the job for the third straight year when Cincinnati opens the 2008 season on Monday vs. the Diamondbacks. It's something that Harang doesn't take for granted.

"It's a big deal in Cincinnati," Harang said. "We don't get to see all the parade stuff that goes on because we're kind of behind the scenes. But you can definitely tell the atmosphere around the ballpark."

Rarely recognized among the Major Leagues' top pitchers, Harang's credentials indicate he deserves that level of respect. Since the 2005 All-Star break, he's among league leaders in most statistical categories.

Harang's 39 wins is fifth best in the Majors, and his 568 1/3 innings and nine complete games are second best.

What does manager Dusty Baker like most about his ace?

"[He throws] strike one," Baker said. "I saw Harang when he wasn't Harang. I saw Harang in Oakland. He was larger and probably throwing harder, but with less command. The light came on. For whatever reason, I don't know.

"He's probably the most pitch-efficient pitcher in the league."

Harang's effort to be an efficient pitcher came from his college days, when he met former big league pitcher Bud Black, who is now the Padres manager.

"The first question he asked me when I had just met him [was], 'What's the best pitch in baseball?' It caught me off guard," Harang said. "I said, 'Fastball.' He said, 'No, strike one is the best pitch in baseball.' That's always stuck in the back of my head. It automatically puts the hitter at a disadvantage."

That pitch efficiency has helped Harang become one of the game's more durable starters. He's surpassed 200 innings in each of the past three seasons.

Last season, Harang went 16-6 with a 3.73 ERA in 34 starts. He threw 231 2/3 innings and established a career high with 218 strikeouts. And that was after a lackluster spring, when he was 2-3 with a 6.66 ERA.

This spring, Harang has been solid most of the time. He doesn't think there was any correlation between a good spring and a good regular season.

"You try not to think about it," said Harang, who is 1-1 in his two career Opening Day starts. "Spring Training is getting ready for the season, building your endurance up, executing pitches and throwing pitches in counts you might not throw them in [during the season]."

Before the National League Cy Young Award vote last year, Harang was barely a whisper in the conversation. He finished fourth behind winner Jake Peavy of the Padres with one second-place vote and seven third-place votes.

"I had him in my conversation at ESPN," said Baker, who did TV analyst work for the network in 2007 during his sabbatical from baseball. "He's probably the most unheralded potential Cy Young candidate in baseball. It doesn't seem to bother him. He just wants to win."

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