Harrison’s ‘magic’ has helped to carry Pirates into MLB’s postseason
In Josh Harrison's childhood home in Cincinnati, the long hallway that led from the front door to the kitchen was much more than just a hallway.
It also was a baseball diamond, football field and even basketball court for Harrison and his older brothers, Vince Jr. and Shaun. It was narrow, so maneuvering around opponents required some skill. They always managed to have a game, however, whether it was with Josh's Little Tikes basketball hoop or tape ball, played with taped up wads of paper and a miniature souvenir bat.
Vince Jr. thought about that hallway earlier this season when he watched his youngest brother — nicknamed Magic Feet from his youth football days — dodge and duck his way out of a rundown to land safely on third base in a game against the New York Mets.
“If I had a dollar for every phone call and text I got after that, and a lot of it was my friends, Shaun's friends, Josh's friends going, ‘That's Magic Feet! That's from the games we played in that hallway!' ” said Vince, 34. “I'm not the only person who thought there was a direct correlation.”
Magic Feet has been magic everything this season.
While no player is singularly responsible for a team's overall success or failure, Harrison's fingerprints are all over many of the Pirates' 88 wins this year. He started the season on the bench, but by July had played so many positions so well that he was named an All-Star as a super-utility player. By August he had dethroned Pedro Alvarez as the starting third baseman. In the last week of the regular season, with the Pirates vying for a division title, Harrison, 27, was vying for the National League batting title.
“He's been a huge part of our success,” reigning National League MVP Andrew McCutchen said. “I can't necessarily say if it wasn't for him we wouldn't be where we are, but he's helped us out tremendously.”
Five months ago, Harrison just wanted to get in the lineup.
He didn't get even a plate appearance in five of the Pirates' first 15 games. The team played 18 games before Harrison got his first start April 20. He was 0 for 8 in his first 10 games.
Publicly, Harrison smiled and talked about patience and remaining positive. During a phone call with Vince, however, he admitted his frustration. He felt like he couldn't get any rhythm coming off the bench, and it was difficult.
Vince, who was drafted by Tampa Bay in the 13th round in 2001 and now is a hitting coach in the Arizona Diamondbacks' farm system, offered his advice. He told Josh to make the best of his at-bats and prepare every day like that one at-bat was going to be the most important one of the game.
Then he made a prediction.
“I told him my gut feeling was we'd be laughing about this in a month,” Vince said. “I told him I've been praying on it, and I think you're going to really get an opportunity and we'll laugh about how frustrated you are.”
Harrison got his first hit of the season April 17, and it was a big one. Batting for Edinson Volquez with one on in the bottom of the seventh inning of a 2-2 tie game against the Milwaukee Brewers, Harrison drilled a home run to left field. The Pirates scored three runs that inning then six in the eighth and won 11-2.
That was the first clip of the 2014 Harrison highlight reel. There would soon be plenty more.
There was the game against the Yankees on May 18, tied 3-3 in the seventh inning until Harrison's home run gave the Pirates the lead. Later in the game, Harrison moved from third base to left field where he went horizontal in mid-air to make a spectacular catch, robbing Yangervis Solarte of a certain RBI double.
Then there was the game in Los Angeles on June 1 when he narrowly missed a home run to left field in the seventh inning, the ball going just foul. On the next pitch, he knocked one out to right field to make it 5-2.
“I think the thing he's done (well) is he's using all parts of the field, and he's driving the ball with power,” McCutchen said. “A lot of his extra-base hits are coming on the right side of the field, which is unique to see with a player of his stature.
“He's not the biggest guy ever, but we've seen him hit balls. It's not just little hits to the right and extra-base hits to the left. It's power to the right side, power to the left. That's been the more impressive thing I've seen from him.”
Harrison continued to get the big, timely hits and make the impressive catches and defensive plays as he moved from left field to right field, third base to second to shortstop, wherever there was a need.
Few besides Harrison, however, believed he could keep it going all season.
He'd had offensive sparks and spurts in the past, but opposing pitchers inevitably would find and exploit his flaws. His leash was never very long, and as soon as he cooled off Harrison would find himself on the bench again, or worse. In 2013, one season after spending his first full year in the majors, Harrison was sent to Triple-A Indianapolis on four occasions. He played 60 games in the majors, batting .250, and 64 games in the minors, batting .317.
Harrison attributes his consistency this year in part to age and experience, adding that he might have figured it out sooner, given an opportunity.
“Not knocking anyone or anything, but it's kind of hard to see what a guy can do when he gets a hit (for) two or three games, then has one game where he doesn't get a hit, and then he doesn't get to play after that,” Harrison said. “You can't expect a guy to make that adjustment if, as soon as he doesn't get a hit, he doesn't go back in there.”
General manager Neal Huntington has admitted more than once this summer that they may have underestimated Harrison.
“We might have missed that he was going to make the adjustment, that if we'd let him stay out there longer he was going to make the adjustment,” Huntington said. “Or, maybe the fact that he didn't continue to play forced him to make the adjustment. It's six of one, half-dozen of the other. But we'll give this young man all the credit in the world.”
Hitting coach Jeff Branson said Harrison learned to trust himself and understand what pitchers were doing to him. His biggest downfall in the past, Branson said, was chasing the slider down and away. This year, he trusted his game plan and focused on keeping his sights up and out over the plate.
“He knows what he wants to swing at,” Branson said. “He commits to his game plan, and he sticks with it.”
Now that he's an everyday player, Harrison said, pitchers don't know what he's going to do when he steps into the batter's box.
“I've shown flashes of going up there ready to hit right away, and I've gone up there like, ‘Show me what you're going to throw me,' ” he said. “That's the advantage I have playing every day, knowing I'm going to get four or five at-bats a day versus knowing I'm going to get one AB facing the eighth-inning guy.”
One person not at all surprised by Harrison's success is Harrison himself.
All year long, whenever he's been asked about his success and how he's been able to do what he's doing, Harrison has responded by saying it's a blessing, and he knew he could do it all along.
Vince Harrison remembers when he was playing in Low-A ball and had a game in Lexington, Ky. Josh and the family drove down from Cincinnati, and their grandmother hosted a few of the players for dinner, including Vince's roommate, B.J. Upton, now with Atlanta.
Before long, they were out tossing the ball around. Josh was in high school at the time, and Vince said he believes that spending time around professional baseball players helped Josh believe it was a realistic possibility for him, too.
By June, Harrison was playing more complete games than partials. From the outfield to the infield, it didn't matter where the Pirates put him. He made the plays defensively, kept hitting and kept making sure that the Pirates had no choice but to find him a spot.
Then, in the beginning of August, the Pirates decided to move the struggling Alvarez to first base. Harrison was going to be their starting third baseman.
“The joy of having Josh was (that) we certainly weren't taking a step back — if not getting better — everywhere he moved on the field,” Huntington said. “Josh turned that into regular at-bats at different positions and ultimately turned it into that third base role.”
Harrison remembers that conversation with Vince back in April.
“We actually talked about that last week,” Harrison said. “He said, ‘I told you we were going to look back and laugh.' I said, ‘You're right.' ”