"He's dominant," Cubs left fielder Alfonso Soriano said. "He dominates every time he pitches."
The dominant one didn't get much early help from his hitters, who struggled to figure out Reds rookie Johnny Cueto (8-12). The Cubs put a runner in scoring position with no outs in four straight innings but didn't convert until the fourth chance. Catcher Geovany Soto smacked his second career triple to lead off the fifth and raced home on Harden's safety squeeze with men on first and third.
Following Soto, Kosuke Fukudome walked and Mark DeRosa struck out. Harden sacrificed to third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, who hesitated but didn't look Soto back to third before throwing to first. Soto had shuffled 30 feet down the line, and as soon as Encarnacion went for the forceout, the rookie dashed home and beat first baseman Joey Votto's throw that bounced and ricocheted off the catcher's glove and kneepad.
"I just followed the third baseman down the line, I was pretty far down," Soto said. "When he let go of the ball, I went. I thought it was going to be close -- I'm not that fast -- so I just went head-first into home plate and luckily I scored."
Soto made sure to move slow enough so as not to alarm Encarnacion, and it worked.
"I saw him, but he was frozen and didn't move to anywhere," Encarnacion said. "Then I just tried to make one out and threw the ball to first."
Even Reds manager Dusty Baker, formerly the Cubs' skipper, had to laud the rookie catcher.
"Soto executed it perfectly," Baker said. "He went at the right time. Votto had no chance of throwing him out."
Cubs manager Lou Piniella could have been nervous about the play. The bunting pitcher had a few weeks' worth of National League experience, and Soto, listed at 225 pounds, isn't the most nimble afoot.
"You don't really see it too much with the catcher," Piniella said. "Give Soto all the credit, good heads-up baseball."
The offense didn't get going until after Cueto exited. In the eighth, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez each had RBIs, and Fukudome drove in two with a bases-loaded single. Carlos Marmol pitched a perfect eighth, running his scoreless-innings streak to 16, and Kerry Wood threw the ninth.
Four of Harden's six double-digit strikeout games have come with the Cubs. The Cubs expected Harden to be great, but this great?
"Maybe a new league, seeing some new guys," Harden said. "They haven't really seen me that much. I've got to give a lot of credit to Soto, also. He's got a really good idea of what he's doing out there. Every time we've worked together, we've really been on the same page."
Piniella is still tempering expectations. He kept his injury-prone right-hander to 94 pitches because there are bigger games ahead.
"We've just got to watch him, keep him fresh, keep him strong," Piniella said. "This kid's a competitor. He's got good stuff, and he pitches with confidence. He's done a real nice job here, obviously."
Harden is still adjusting to being a National League pitcher at the plate. In his seventh NL start, he struck out trying to bunt a runner over in the third. He certainly made up for it, though.
"After the first at-bat, not getting it done, I was pretty frustrated with doing that," Harden said. "I really wanted to make sure I got that one down [in the fifth]."