Ron Cook: Josh Harrison in heyday as All-Star utilityman
July 6, 2014 11:25 PM
Pittsburgh Pirates Josh Harrison slides safely past the tag of Phillies catcher Cameron Rupp at PNC Park.
Pittsburgh Pirates Josh Harrison celebrates after hitting the game winner against the Mets in the 11th inning June 27 at PNC Park.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Josh Harrison had the easy part. All he had to do was make the National League All-Star team as a utilityman against overwhelming odds. That was nothing compared with what his parents, Vince Sr. and Bonita, of Forest Park, Ohio, a Cincinnati suburb, had to face Sunday after learning of his selection to the All-Star Game July 15 in Minnesota. They were in Pittsburgh to watch the Pirates' 6-2 win against the Philadelphia Phillies and learned of the big news from their son before the game. They had to keep it a secret for more than seven hours, per the request of Major League Baseball, which didn't want anyone to upstage its "All-Star Selection Show" Sunday night on ESPN.
Put yourself in the Harrisons' shoes for a second. Your son has just received one of the highest honors in his occupation and you can't scream to the world about it? How cruel.
OK, delightfully cruel.
"They were excited," Harrison said, grinning.
Harrison's amazing story just keeps getting better and better. It took this latest surreal twist when he was picked as a reserve for the National League team. He doesn't have a regular position with the Pirates, but he will be at Target Field with baseball's brightest stars, the Andrew McCutchens, Miguel Cabreras, Clayton Kershaws and Mike Trouts. Just like them, he will be known as an All-Star for eternity.
"You definitely appreciate it because it lets you know the work that you've done has not gone unnoticed," Harrison said.
No one on the Pirates has worked harder than Harrison. Perhaps no position player but McCutchen has meant more to a team that has gone 37-23 after a 10-18 start to climb into second place in the National League Central Division, just 4½ games behind the Milwaukee Brewers. The Pirates went 8-2 on the homestand against the New York Mets, Arizona Diamondbacks and the Phillies and have won six consecutive series.
Harrison was a little-used backup at second base and third base at the start of the season. The Pirates began winning when manager Clint Hurdle tried him in right field for struggling Jose Tabata and Travis Snider. They moved him to left field when Starling Marte was benched for four games. Next will be a start at shortstop -- "sooner rather than later," Hurdle said -- to give Jordy Mercer a day off. Harrison is the top backup there now, too, because of Clint Barmes' serious groin injury.
"He has absolutely embraced it," Hurdle said of Harrison's versatility. "He works different spots different days to sharpen his game. I can't put a lid on this guy and I'm not about to tell him what he can't do."
Most players like a routine. They like to know their role on the team. They certainly like to know their position and spot in the batting order.
None of that matters to Harrison.
"My routine is going out there and playing. This is what I train to do. I train myself to go out and play at the highest level," he said. "I don't worry too much about a routine. You can't get caught up in all that. All that really matters is when the game gets going."
Hurdle called Harrison "an exception."
Not every player can start Friday against the Phillies at third base for Pedro Alvarez and bat sixth, Saturday at second base for Neil Walker and bat fifth and Sunday in left field for Marte and bat second. Harrison contributed to the win Sunday by banging a triple to right-center field in the second inning off Phillies starter A.J. Burnett and scoring the Pirates' third run. He has hit .307 in his 49 starts. The team's record in those games is 30-19.
"I've been blessed to play this game," Harrison said. "I knew, given the opportunity to play, I could go out and do what I do. Everything else takes care of itself."
McCutchen knows how hard it is to do what Harrison does.
"Every opportunity he gets, wherever that is, he's making the most of it," McCutchen said.
Harrison is doing it every way. He runs well and has nine stolen bases. He has been a good clutch hitter, batting .372 with runners on base and .391 with runners in scoring position. He also has been superb defensively at all of his positions. He has been so good at third base that Hurdle puts him there late in games to replace Alvarez. Or maybe that's because Alvarez has been so bad. Alvarez had another error Sunday, his 18th this season, a wild throw, of course.
"I look forward to playing anywhere I can," Harrison said. "Shortstop is another position they can put me at. I'm all ready for it."
People have been waiting for Harrison to fail. I'll admit it. I've been in that group. Once a utilityman, always a utilityman, right?
But Harrison keeps proving us wrong. He has been successful for nearly a third of the season. Hurdle sees no reason why that success can't continue.
"Josh Harrison is a lot of fun to have on this team. He's got big heart and great desire."
Now, Harrison has something else that he and his parents can shout about from the mountaintop.
Surreal doesn't even begin to describe that.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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