OAKLAND, Calif. -- Rich Harden wanted to keep going he felt so strong after 55 pitches. Yet Oakland's star right-hander knows he must pace himself in order to be on the mound in meaningful games come October.
The Athletics are in position to clinch the AL West this weekend against their biggest division rival -- and Harden is thrilled he helped his team take a step closer to that goal.
"It felt great to be out there," Harden said. "I was a little nervous. I didn't know if my body would hold up."
It sure did.
The first-place A's reduced their magic number to four to win their first division title since 2003 and lead the idle Los Angeles Angels by seven games heading into the teams' key three-game series starting Friday night. Oakland watched the Angels win the West by clinching in the Coliseum each of the past two years.
"Win two out of three and we could be the team celebrating out on the field instead of them," Oakland's Nick Swisher said.
Chad Gaudin (3-2) pitched 1 1/3 innings for the win, Marco Scutaro and Milton Bradley both singled in runs and Mark Ellis added a sacrifice fly for the A's, who won for the seventh time in eight games. They moved 26 games over .500 (89-63) for the first time since Sept. 5, 2004, when they were 81-55.
Grady Sizemore hit a solo home run in the third against Harden and the Indians pulled within 4-3 on consecutive RBI singles by Victor Martinez and Ryan Garko in the fifth. But Oakland batted around in the sixth and added three more runs.
Harden pitched three strong innings in his first start since June 4, his sixth outing of the year overall and only his second since April 26 because of two stints on the disabled list. Harden, who won 10 games last season and 11 in 2004, will start again Tuesday with his pitch count increased to 75.
He had five straight strikeouts during one stretch, striking out the last batter in the first and then the side in the second -- fanning Jhonny Peralta, Joe Inglett and Andy Marte on pitches of 95 mph, 96 and 95 that inning.
Harden allowed one run, two hits and walked a batter, then left for the clubhouse afterward to high-fives and handshakes from his teammates.
Closer Huston Street entered with no outs in the ninth after Jay Witasick allowed back-to-back singles to Marte and Kelly Shoppach, then the reigning AL Rookie of the Year finished for his 36th save in 44 chances. After a single loaded the bases, Street gave up a sacrifice fly to Jason Michaels to make it 7-4.
Fans cheered when Harden headed to the outfield to warm up more than an a half-hour before the first pitch and gave him another loud greeting when he was announced with the starting lineup.
He was reinstated from the DL before the game after recovering from a strained ligament in his right elbow.
The A's are hopeful Harden's health will hold up so he can pitch in the playoffs. Oakland has missed the postseason the last two years after four straight trips, all of which they lost in the first round.
"Having a healthy Rich Harden being able to go out and pitch seven innings is absolutely a tremendous plus for the club," manager Ken Macha said before the game of Harden's potential down the stretch. "Assuming that happens."
Harden's not ready to make predictions about his status for the playoffs.
"It's early," he said. "I don't want to talk about that. I'm pitching Tuesday and that's all I'm focusing on. As far as the playoffs, I'll worry about that when it happens."
C.C. Sabathia (11-11) allowed seven runs -- four earned -- and seven hits, struck out five and walked three in 5 1/3 innings. The burly left-hander, who grew up in nearby Vallejo, lost for the third time in four starts and fell to 1-4 in 10 career starts against the A's.
"If anything, it's being too alive," Sabathia said. "On the surface, I'm relaxed to get a chance to come home. It just hasn't worked out for me."
Kendall's sixth-inning single -- the catcher's third hit of the game -- chased Sabathia. His four RBI were a season high.
The A's won their third straight in the series after losing the opener Monday night and improved to 6-1 so far on their final homestand, which ends against the Angels.
Oakland's Jay Payton went 0-for-4 to have his 10-game hitting streak snapped.
- A's 3B Eric Chavez sat out his second straight game with a strained left hamstring, though Macha said Chavez felt better. Chavez planned to play Friday against the Angels.
- Sabathia has a 6.97 ERA in six career starts in Oakland.
- Kendall's four RBI were his most since driving in four runs April 23, 2002, against the Phillies while with Pittsburgh.