Click photo to enlarge
Oakland Athletics starter Rich Harden pitches against Boston Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis in the first inning of their Major League Baseball regular season game at Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, Wednesday, March 26, 2008. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
TOKYO – A’s second baseman Mark Ellis talked before Wednesday’s game of the comfort level that’s present when Rich Harden is on the mound.

One night after letting a ninth-inning lead slip away at the Tokyo Dome, the A’s were in the market for some comfort.

They got it from Harden, who befuddled the Boston Red Sox for six innings and led the A’s to a 5-1 victory and a split of their season-opening series against the defending World Series champs.

Harden, making his first start since July 7, struck out nine and allowed just three hits in six innings. His only blemish came in the top of the sixth, when Manny Ramirez homered to left on a 1-1 offering.

Other than that, Boston advanced just two runners as far as second base against him.

“Just knowing he’s out there every fifth day, you have a chance to win,” Ellis said. “It’s huge having him out there. He’s healthy. Hopefully he stays healthy.”

A crowd of 44,735 filled the Tokyo Dome. Much like Tuesday’s opener, which Boston took 6-5 in 10 innings, they were decidedly pro-Red Sox. The script played out perfectly in that game, with Japanese pitcher Hideki Okajima getting the win in relief and Ramirez knocking in four runs.

Not the case Wednesday.

The nine strikeouts were the most for Harden since Aug. 14, 2005, when he punched out nine against the Minnesota Twins. He had made just 20 appearances since then before Wednesday.

Injuries have derailed Harden for the past three seasons, but he enjoyed a healthy spring training and is being counted atop the A’s rotation along with No. 1 starter Joe Blanton.

Harden stood atop a podium in front of the pitcher’s mound after the game for a quick interview in front of the Japanese fans.

He was joined by A’s left fielder Emil Brown, whose three-run homer in the bottom of the third gave Harden some breathing room.

Brown was named the game’s Most Valuable Player. For his efforts, Brown earned a $10,000 check (that’s one million yen for those who are counting), as well as a Ricoh color copier.

Ricoh was the title sponsor of Japan Opening Series 2008.

Brown turned on a 1-0 offering from Lester and knew it was out the instant he made contact.

He got an enthusiastic greeting at home plate from former Kansas City teammate Mike Sweeney, who scored on the homer along with Ellis.

Brown, who signed as a free agent in the offseason, didn’t get off to the best start with his new team in Tuesday’s loss. His RBI double in the bottom of the 10th pulled the A’s to within a run, but Brown made a base running blunder on the play and was tagged out in a rundown between second and third, snuffing out a potential game-tying rally.

Harden got a strong assist Wednesday from his bullpen.

Santiago Casilla handled the seventh. Then Keith Foulke turned in his second straight impressive outing to start the season.

With a runner on second and one out in the eighth, Foulke retired David Ortiz on a fly to right and then froze Ramirez with a fastball that painted the outside corner.

Foulke struck out Ramirez looking in both games.

Alan Embree pitched the ninth to nail down the win and send the A’s back to the United States on a good note.

Contact Joe Stiglich at jstiglic@bayareanewsgroup.com.