Ron Cook: Pirates' Harrison copes with role that's never easy


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WASHINGTON -- Before the game Thursday against the Washington Nationals, Pirates star Andrew McCutchen had a word of advice for little-used Josh Harrison, who was making his second start of the season. "Hey, Dog. Do what you do. Don't try to do too much. Play your game."

After the Pirates lost, 9-7, on Bryce Harper's two-run home run in the ninth inning off Bryan Morris, McCutchen made it a point to track down Harrison again as they walked slowly off the Nationals Park lawn. Surely, he congratulated him on his big day, which included a two-run home run in the sixth and a two-out, two-strike, two-run single in the top of the ninth that tied the score, 7-7.

Well, not exactly.

"He thought he saw Harper miss third base," Harrison said. "We were trying to figure out how to get an appeal."

There was just one problem.

"Both of us forgot [Roger] Bernadina was on base when Harper hit it," Harrison said, sheepishly. "He had already scored so it didn't matter."

That was the only mistake Harrison made all day.

It's a shame the Pirates wasted such a wonderful performance. The Josh Harrisons of the world just don't have days like that very often. He opened the season with the big club, then shuffled regularly between Pittsburgh and Class AAA Indianapolis. Four times, the Pirates sent him down. Four times, they called him back up.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't wondering if it was going to happen again when Neil [Walker] came back," Harrison said.

Instead, the Pirates released veteran Brandon Inge when they activated Walker from the disabled list Tuesday.

"[Manager Clint Hurdle] called me in and told me they were keeping me," Harrison said. "He said to continue to work hard and stay ready."

That is so much easier said than done for a bench player. It might be the toughest job in baseball. A man can go a week without playing, then find himself pinch-hitting against a great closer with the game on the line in the ninth inning.

That's what happened to Pirates backup catcher Michael McKenry in Cincinnati last weekend. He twice failed against the Reds' Aroldis Chapman, in losses Friday and Saturday night, prompting calls of outrage to the talk shows and cries for the Pirates to get a better bench.

McKenry and Harrison talked about those two at-bats. They are close and talk about everything. "We talk about showing up every single day ready to go," McKenry said. "We talk about being ready for the next opportunity."

McKenry got a rare start Sunday in Cincinnati and had a seventh-inning double that was huge in the Pirates' 3-2 win. He got another start Wednesday night and drove in two runs with a ninth-inning single in a 4-2 win.

"I was so happy for him because I know hard it is to do what he did," Harrison said.

Harrison took his turn Thursday. He hit his home run off starter Gio Gonzalez to cut the Nationals' lead to 4-3. He was even more clutch with that two-run single off reliever Ian Krol in the ninth, completing the Pirates' four-run inning and climb out of a 7-3 ditch.

It's a good thing Harrison is versatile. He started and played most of the game in right field, switched to second base for a few innings, then moved back to right for the ninth.

"It's not that hard. I've played 'em all before," Harrison said, shrugging.

The loss ruined Harrison's day. But the Pirates didn't deserve to win. They made three errors in the first, allowing the Nationals to take a 4-0 lead against starter A.J. Burnett. "Our worst inning on the field this season," Hurdle said.

Later, third baseman Pedro Alvarez ran into an out when he turned toward second base after an infield single, although Hurdle saw the play differently and was thrown out after expressing that point to first base umpire Laz Diaz. The Pirates went 2 for 16 with runners in scoring position before Harrison's ninth-inning single. They struck out 15 times, five when they took a called third strike, although the Nationals also had a problem with home plate umpire Mike Winters. Washington manager Davey Johnson was ejected in the fifth after shortstop Ian Desmond was called out on a third strike with the bases loaded.

At least Johnson's day had a happier ending than Hurdle's.

Harrison was on the Pirates' flight to Miami Thursday night for the weekend series against the Marlins. How long he will remain with the club is hard to predict. The trade deadline is Wednesday. It's believed the Pirates will try to better their bench.

Harrison said he can't worry about that. McKenry said there isn't time to worry about it.

"Yes, we've talked about that, too," McKenry said. "We can't control our role. All we can control is our work and our preparation ...

"We've got guys on this team who could have bigger roles or maybe play more for other teams. But they accept their roles here and want to be the best they can be at it. That's why this is such a special team."

A 60-40 team.

"I want to be a part of it," Harrison said. "Everybody wants to be a part of it. Even the guys at Triple-A want to be a part of it ...

"I can't worry about tomorrow. All I can do is take today as it comes. Be ready if I'm called on. I have to be the best I can be today."

Harrison and McKenry get it. They know that baseball for a bench player is like life for all of us.

Tomorrow isn't promised.

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Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published July 26, 2013 4:00 AM


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