By JOE KAY
AP Sports Writer
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Aaron Harang got the sign from Javier Valentin, went into that smooth, compact delivery and let it fly.
Pop! The ball smacked the catcher's mitt. Pirates outfielder Nate McLouth craned his neck and watched it go past.
Nice way to open the game. And the Cincinnati Reds' top starter was just getting started.
The next pitch was fouled back. The next whizzed past McLouth, who gave it one of those "what-was-that?" looks, then headed back to the bench. Three pitches, three strikes, one out, just like that.
Harang wasn't messing around Friday in his second-to-last appearance before opening day. His first five pitches were strikes. He had Pirates swinging at his lights-out pitch, the low-and-away slider that often gets slapped weakly on the ground.
Nothing new here.
Over the past two seasons, the 29-year-old pitcher has been among the NL's best. He led the league in victories and strikeouts in 2006, and followed with another 16-win, 200-strikeout season last year, when a leaky bullpen cost him a shot at 20 victories.
"He's probably one of the most unheralded Cy Young candidates in baseball," manager Dusty Baker said Friday. "It doesn't seem to bother him."
Harang is one of the most mellow players on the team. Nothing seems to unsettle him. He's easily approachable in the clubhouse, even on days when he's starting -- a time when most other pitchers try to block everything out of mind.
"He's the same way off the mound as he is on it," Baker said. "He's like a lot of good hitters. With a real good hitter, you can't tell if he's about to swing or take."
The most predictable thing about Harang is what happens on the first pitch to just about every batter.
"Strike one," Baker said.
It goes back to his days at San Diego State, where he met current Padres manager Bud Black, a former Aztec pitcher who played 15 years in the majors. He got a little tutoring on the art of pitching.
"The first time I really talked to Bud Black, the first question he asked me was: What's the best pitch in baseball?" Harang said. "It caught me off guard. I said 'fastball' or something like that, and he was like, 'No, it's strike one. It's the best pitch in baseball.' That's always stuck in the back of my head."
In the last two seasons, Harang has settled into a pattern of making fast work of hitters. He finishes off batters with a minimum of pitches, allowing him to go deep into games. He led the NL with six complete games and 216 strikeouts in 2006, and tied for the lead with 16 wins.
Despite those numbers, he didn't get a vote for the NL Cy Young. In the award's 50-year history, he's the only pitcher to lead the league in victories and strikeouts and not win it.
Last season, he won 16 games again -- the bullpen blew leads for him four times -- and finished second in the NL with a career-high 218 strikeouts. This time, he got four votes for the Cy Young.
Harang has compared his numbers with those of the pitchers who got more votes the last two years, and he knows they stack up. He has a theory on why he hasn't gotten more attention.
"You look at it: Cincinnati is not as big a market as LA or Chicago or New York or the Bay area," he said. "Of course, more people are going to see that. Those are more national markets for the media. So it's no big deal to me."
He's more in tune with a smaller circle of observers.
"My teammates know what I'm doing," he said. "The opposing hitters on other teams know what I'm doing. They know what to expect when I step on the mound. That's what matters to me."