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''Even if I get through the season, it's not going to shut anybody up,'' he said.
Even if he gets through his first 30-start season in five years? ''No.''
No matter how strong and how successful this season eventually looks? ''No.''
Because the questions about his shoulder keep coming, the theme always the same, the when-not-if doubt always in the tone.
So at 27, as he prepares today in Milwaukee to open a 2009 season with the anticipation of personal health and the promise of October hanging on his right arm, Harden has given up trying to convince people he's as ready to start a season as he has felt since early in his career.
He'll just pitch whenever the Cubs ask him, stick to a training program that seems to be working and ignore you. Now, 10 starts from now -- even 32 starts from now if he reaches a career high.
Even then, he said: ''It wouldn't change anything. I think people would say I just got lucky. We can talk about that at the end of the season, but I don't think it'll ever stop. And I've accepted that.''
In Oakland, there were whispers in the organization about his drive and toughness, although any doubts in Chicago were put to rest after he took a cortisone shot and gutted out the end of a 10-2, 2.07 ERA season last September and October trying to help the Cubs win a division championship.
In Chicago, it has been all about the fitness of the shoulder. The Sun-Times revealed in January that he has a two-year-old tear in the back of the shoulder, which he's treating with therapy and a strengthening program -- an approach recommended and supported by a consensus of the Cubs' medical staff and at least one renowned sports surgeon, Dr. Lewis Yocum in Southern California.
Harden has said all spring that this is the best he has felt in years. Even through some uninspiring spring outings, he said, ''Every time out I'm feeling better.'' He attributes some of the mediocre results to a veteran spring approach -- focused on mechanical fine-tuning and preparation.
''I'm throwing great, and this is the best I've felt in a while,'' he said.
Not that he cares who believes him. Not anymore.
''It feels better to accept that,'' he said. ''To mentally accept the fact that people are just going to continue to say and write things that they want. That's fine.''
And in case anyone was wondering, ''Yeah, I can use that as motivation.''
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