SAN FRANCISCO -- Thursday was supposed to be something of an audition for Seth Etherton and Kirk Saarloos, the two A's right-handers battling for the fifth spot in Oakland's rotation.

But Saarloos never took the stage, and Etherton didn't pitch well enough to show he's ready to star on Broadway -- much less at the ballpark off Hegenberger Road in Oakland.

"I thought I threw the ball well," Etherton said. "It was that one inning and probably about 10 or 15 pitches where I wasn't locked in and they capitalized on it."

Instead of seeing relief duty in Thursday's 6-5 loss, Saarloos will start Friday's game in place of Rich Harden, who was scratched because of a blister on the middle finger of his pitching hand.

The A's are all but certain Harden's blister won't keep him from starting the second game of the regular season Wednesday in Baltimore.

Etherton's one bad inning came in the third. He began it by plunking No. 8 hitter Mike Matheny with a slow breaking pitch, and after a sacrifice bunt moved Matheny to second, Etherton lured a slow roller to second out of Ray Durham.

Keith Ginter charged in on the ball but couldn't handle it cleanly, and Durham was on with what was generously ruled a hit.

There was no doubt about the Giants' next two hits. Omar Vizquel roped a two-run double to right, and one Etherton walk later, Moises Alou drove a mirror-image double to left to bring home Vizquel.

Etherton also gave up a solo home run to Alou in the fifth and wound up with five earned runs allowed in five innings, with two walks, two strikeouts and a hit batsman.

Prior to the game, manager Ken Macha said he was hoping to get 85 to 90 pitches out of his starter and said he planned to get Saarloos some work after that.

But Etherton left after throwing 70 pitches through five and, with Saarloos on hold until Friday, was replaced by a string of bullpen regulars.

"I thought [Etherton] pitched OK," said Macha. "It wasn't like he was terrible, and it wasn't like he was great."

"I just didn't get ahead of guys," said Etherton of his faulty third inning. "I was falling off a little bit mechanically. I threw some balls over the plate and they hammered them.

"Besides that, it was a good outing, just one inning that got away from me."

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The A's won't say until they have to -- Saturday is the 25-man roster deadline -- where Etherton and Saarloos will be Opening Day.

Etherton still has an option left, and Saarloos is a non-roster invitee, so contracts shouldn't be a factor.

Thus, as Etherton knows, it all comes down to performance.

"It doesn't matter what I do off the field or in the clubhouse or what I say," he said. "I could go out on the mound, absolutely deal, and be an idiot off the field and it doesn't matter if I get things done on the field."

Macha said there is more to these final exhibition games than just settling on a fifth starter. Because of the way the schedule works out -- the A's also play here Friday, then take on the Giants in Oakland on Saturday before traveling Sunday to the Monday opener in Baltimore -- he wants to make sure everyone gets the work they need.

To that end, Macha didn't start pulling his regulars out of the lineup until later in Thursday's game and will likely do the same Saturday.

"To me the most important thing is to get the regular guys a lot of at-bats," he said.

That paid off Thursday for Eric Byrnes, who hit a two-run homer and drove in another with a sacrifice fly, and for Eric Chavez, who singled home one run and doubled in the tying run in the eighth.

Those runs were too late to help Etherton, who can do nothing now but wait -- not that he's going to lose any sleep about it.

"There's no need to speculate; it wears you down mentally," Etherton said. "You control what you can control, and that's it."