Josh Harrison Seizes An Opportunity

The unlikely star of 2014 at PNC Park is the Pirates' utilityman-turned-All-Star.

 photos by dave arrigo/Pittsburgh Pirates

 

Pittsburgh Pirates utility player Josh Harrison was trapped between second and third.

In the 10th inning of a game June 27 against the New York Mets, he was hoping that Gregory Polanco would knock him home. Instead, Polanco bounced the ball toward Mets pitcher Jenrry Mejia, and Harrison read it wrong. The Mets adjusted into the standard rundown formation.

Then Harrison willed himself to third base in an almost unparalleled feat of baseball magic.

It wasn’t pretty. In the 16 seconds between Polanco’s hit and the end of the play, Harrison fell or stumbled at least a half-dozen times and once awkwardly chucked his helmet off mid-stride to maintain a clear line of sight on the befuddled Mets — who stared in shock at the assembled umpires when Harrison was called safe at third.

He must’ve been out at some point in all that madness, right?

Nope. Improbably, supernaturally, Harrison was safe. He pulled the same stunt again a month later, backpedaling and juking between hapless Colorado Rockies on July 27. He eventually scooted around stumbling catcher Wilin Rosario to squeak out of another base-running jam.

The Mets and the Rockies were dumbfounded, but Pirates fans weren’t. Defying expectations is Harrison’s defining trait.
“When I’m in a rundown . . . I’m trying to be safe. I want to get out of it,” Harrison says. Regarding the tightrope escape against the Mets, he recalls, “Polanco got to second, and I just made a couple of moves. Tried to be elusive.” Maybe his opponents seemed so confused because in Harrison’s mind he had abandoned the game of baseball altogether in that moment; in a rundown, he switches to a football mindset, he says. “It’s all about setting up defenders. I try to use everything I can against them.”

The 27-year-old has had an improbable season to match those unbelievable plays, which also energized his team. Since 2013, when he made four trips back and forth between the big-league club and AAA Indianapolis, Harrison has become a fixture in the Pirates’ lineup. As of Aug. 11, he’s hitting .313 for the season — slightly outranking even the reigning National League MVP, Andrew McCutchen — with a .504 slugging percentage.

It’s a dramatic improvement. In his mind, though, nothing has changed. “There’s nothing that I’ve done differently as far as my preparation or anything,” says Harrison. “It’s just a matter of having an opportunity.”

“I’m glad he feels that way,” says Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. “It does seem like he’s seeing the ball a lot better than he ever has. There haven’t been any significant chases down or up, as we’ve seen in the past . . . maybe he’s just doing a better job of looking out over the plate than he’s ever done before.”

His stellar offensive numbers have helped Harrison to transition from an extra piece in 2013 to an everyday starter in 2014, even though he still does not have a regular position. Harrison is what’s known as a “super-utility” player — someone who can play almost anywhere on the field; in 2014, he’s appeared at second, third, short, right and left.

Last year, he even pitched. He faced only one batter — but he got the out.

“It’s hard to try to keep up — and try to perfect — five positions,” says Harrison. “What I’ve found is that it’s easier for me to just go out there and be an athlete, as opposed to trying to doing it the textbook way. Because it’s never going to be textbook when you’re not there every day.”

In July, Harrison was selected as a reserve for the 2014 All-Star Game, a rare honor for a utility player. “Guys [had] been telling me the whole time, ‘You’re ready.’ I knew people were voting for me,” he says. “So I was a little surprised, but at the same time I wasn’t. But I wasn’t really focused on it.”

Not focused on being picked for the All-Star Game? That’s right. While he acknowledges that it was “exciting to find out,” Harrison had other business to attend to.

“We still had a week of the first half left.” After coming closer to a championship than any Pirates team in decades in 2013, Harrison and his teammates are single-minded in 2014. “We all want to go to the World Series and win. If we focus on us, that gives us our best chance.” 

 

Categories: From the Magazine, Pirates