“Will Harris’s track record is second to none,” Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo said this past winter, after announcing that the club had signed the 35-year-old, eight-year veteran.
“I don’t know if people realize this,” Nats’ reliever Sean Doolittle told reporters after the 3-year/$24M deal with Harris was announced back in January, “I hope Nats fans know that he’s one of the best relievers in all of baseball.
“You look at his numbers from last season and throughout his career. He’s more than just the guy who gave up the home run to Howie [Kendrick], which was an incredible pitch by the way.
That’s a reliever’s nightmare. Sometimes it just doesn’t go your way, and I think that the way that he’s handled it with so much dignity and class says a lot about who he is as a person as well. So I was stoked about that.”
Yes, Harris, of course, was on the mound when Kendrick hit his home run late in Game 7 of the World Series last October, but he was at the end of a dominant season of work, and an impressive postseason.
Harris finished the 2019 regular season with a 1.50 ERA, a 3.15 FIP, 14 walks (2.10 BB/9), 62 Ks (9.30 K/9), and a .196/.246/.294 line against in 68 games and 60 IP, appearing in at least 60 games for the fourth time in five seasons, and topping 60 innings for the third time over that stretch, in which he put up a 2.36 ERA and a 2.99 FIP for the Houston Astros.
The trio of Harris, Doolittle, and Daniel Hudson (who recorded the final out of the Fall Classic and signed a new 2-year/$10M deal to return to the Nationals), gives Davey Martinez options in the late innings as the Nats and their manager attempt to defend the World Series crown.
“We’ve got three guys out there, Huddy, Will, and Doo to pitch the back end of the bullpen,” Martinez said earlier this week. “That’s what they do. They’ve proved that.
“Let’s get through five innings, six innings with the starters and then we finish off the 7th, 8th, and 9th with those guys, we’ll be in good shape.”
Harris said on Tuesday that he’s in good shape now after dealing with an abdominal issue in Spring Training 1.0, before the baseball world shut down out of concern for the coronavirus pandemic back in mid-March.
Harris continued to rehab from the injury, and, he told reporters, came into Spring Training 2.0 feeling 100%, having thrown bullpens regularly during the layoff to keep himself sharp for the season he hoped they’d get to play.
He said he was just happy to get back up on a mound again last night in a sim game in Nationals Park.
“I’ve been feeling really good all summer. Bullpens are a lot different than real games, right? And I’ve done my fair share of rehab over the years, and I know how detrimental throwing bullpens for a long time can be for a pitcher. It’s a totally different speed, a totally different mentality, and you can get in what I call ‘bullpen mode’, where you have a tendency to move really slow, so trying to make things as competitive as I can when I was at home, and yeah, I feel really good. Threw today, no issues. I had a back spasm issue from the drive out here, but got that cleared up behind me, and just put in extra time every day, and so far it’s felt good. So I’m looking forward to my next few outings before this thing starts.”
Just getting back on the mound in competitive action was, as he noted, a welcome change.
“I got a lot out of today. Just speaking individually,” Harris explained.
“I haven’t pitched in a game setting since the World Series. So for me that was a really long time, and it felt normal. Everything felt normal, and mentally it was just in the moment and trying to make pitches, and thinking my way through at bats and what I wanted to do.
“So, yeah, for me it was fine, normal preparation. It will be different when the season starts I’m sure, with no fans in the stands and things like that.”
Will it be hard to get motivated to compete in the late innings with no crowd cheering or jeering as you work?
“You’re going to be competing against another team and trying to win,” Harris said. “That’s all the incentive that I personally need.”
When he was done with his outing against his teammates, Harris got to go over the outing with catcher Kurt Suzuki, with whom he’ll be working this season after facing him over the years.
“The first time I threw to Kurt was today, and the second I got out of the game, [we were] talking it over in the dugout, and he’d tell me what he was thinking, [and I’d] kind of relay what I was thinking, and it was fun.
“I’m going to learn a lot, just talking to the veteran pitchers on the team too. I plan on getting better while I’m here.”
Getting to work with Suzuki and Yan Gomes (who re-signed a month before Harris’s deal was announced), has the reliever excited.
“That was part of the thing after I initially signed here, was talking to them. Coming from other organizations where you have veterans, and picking their brains, and coming to another organization where they have two catchers that have been doing it for a long time and played in a lot of important games and caught a lot of different guys and so they have a lot of different ways to view things.
“Everybody has their unique experiences. Guys that they maybe have caught that have my repertoire of pitches, right? And what made them successful and things like that. It’s in the early stages. Like today was the first time.
“It hasn’t quite blossomed yet, but it will. And I’m looking forward to their feedback to help me, and they’re guys that I faced. That’s a thing I really like to do. Guys that have faced me, like when you pitch in Houston for five years, well like those guys don’t know what it’s like to hit off of me, so there’s not too much they can say.
“But these guys, [I] faced them last year, faced them in previous years, so getting their approach off me and what they’re thinking and what they’re seeing is stuff to learn from.”
As noted above, Harris appeared in 60 games for the fourth time in five seasons last year, and topped 60 IP for the third time in that stretch, so how many appearances will he get during the 60-game season this year?
“I feel really good right now, so to have a good starting point I think is really important,” he said.
“To be in the best shape you can on the front end, so that you’re able to withstand that first 3 out of 4 or 5 out of 7 in a week and things like that, but every season brings that.
“This season I don’t think — it’s not going to be any different.
“I think any reliever will tell you, you have months where you throw 18-20 times and you have months where you throw 12.
“For us it’s only two months, so if it’s going to be the 18-20 both months, I don’t think it’s that different from what we’re used to.
“As a reliever, if you’re pitching a lot, that just means you’re pitching well, and so it kind of comes with it. It comes hand in hand.
“If you don’t want to throw 18 times in a month, give up some runs, and you won’t throw 18 times in a month. That’s kind of the way I’ve always felt about it.
“It just comes with the territory.”