By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 29, 2009
BALTIMORE, June 28 -- With his first at-bat still 2 1/2 hours away, Willie Harris sat down in front of a laptop Sunday morning and searched for a way -- even a fractional one -- to boost his odds. For 10 minutes in the visitors' clubhouse, he watched video footage of Baltimore's rookie starter, David Hernandez.
Maybe the visual study would help, Harris said. Maybe not. Oftentimes, preparation yields no immediate payoff. Baseball has too many coin-flip variables to obey any grand design.
Still, every so often, the odds tilt just right -- as they did Sunday afternoon in the Washington Nationals' 5-3 victory over the Orioles at Camden Yards. A new lineup begat a new leadoff hitter in Harris, whose patient hitting approach begat a 3-for-4 day that included a walk, a stolen base and a homer.
As a result, the Nationals avoided a series sweep and headed to Florida knowing at least one thing: On Monday, again, Harris will bat leadoff. Perhaps that move, and the resulting lineup shuffle, makes Washington a marginally better team.
"Why change it?" Manager Manny Acta said. "We're going to stick with it for one more game and then, if we win, we'll keep it."
Acta put his fingerprint on this victory in mid-morning, as he penned perhaps the most experimental lineup of his career. He stuck Harris up top, thus placing Washington's next four hitters in more advantageous positions. All of a sudden, the free-swinging Cristian Guzmán was second (where he was batting .529 this year), and the .300-hitting Nick Johnson was third, positioned for more RBI opportunities. And behind them? Ryan Zimmerman, batting cleanup for the first time since 2006, and Adam Dunn.
"Willie," Acta said, "is the one making it possible."
More so than anybody else on the roster, Harris resembles the archetypal leadoff hitter, and Sunday he began plotting strategy well before his first at-bat. But he wasn't the only person who, in retrospect, fulfilled his role. Starting pitcher John Lannan again proved to be Washington's stopper, pitching into the eighth inning despite allowed leadoff men to reach in each of his first four innings. Meantime, Dunn again provided a game-changing dose of power, boosting the Nationals to a 2-1 lead in the fourth by launching a 442-foot homer onto Eutaw Street. That homer, Dunn's 19th of the year, hit the iconic warehouse on a single bounce.
"I hadn't hit one in a while, so it was a really good feeling today," Dunn said.
But not all of Washington's contributions were so forceful, nor did they need to be. This game was made possible by little things. Such as Josh Willingham scoring from second base on a single in the sixth when Baltimore catcher Matt Wieters couldn't secure the throw for a would-be tag-out. Such as the 3-5-2 double play that Washington used to help Lannan escape the second, his biggest jam. Or such as Harris standing in for a combined 22 pitches in his first three at-bats, working a full count every time.
In the last few weeks, Harris has emerged as one of Washington's most necessary players. He plays defense. He steals bases. He's a reliable center fielder, the position at which he's now started nine games in a row. And on a clumsy team, Harris looks all the smoother. That said, the 31-year-old is among Washington's most ardent video-studiers. He didn't enter the majors with such a habit, but while with the Chicago White Sox, he learned from Frank Thomas.
"I look for an edge," Harris said before the game. "Like in scoring position: Does a pitcher like going to his change-up? Does he like his slider? What's his pitch? Once I look at film, that's when I come up with my approach. This guy today, he looks pretty confident. His body doesn't tell me anything, like he's nervous. Looks like he throws a lot of strikes. Still, I'll be patient."
His spot in the lineup demanded as much. Baltimore's Hernandez was making just his third career start, so even Harris's first at-bat -- an eight-pitch battle that ended in a hard groundout to first -- had some value: It allowed Washington's other players to see the rookie's repertoire.
Later in the game, Harris knew it himself, and pounced. In the third, though it didn't lead to a run, he yanked a 3-2 fastball into the right field corner for a double. In the fifth, he walked and stole second base. By then, Harris felt like he was "in a zone," he later said. He came up for the fourth time of the afternoon against reliever Chris Ray. Overcoming an 0-2 count, Harris watched two balls, then turned on a 96-mph down-the-middle fastball, sending it over the 25-foot wall in right. The solo homer gave Washington a 4-1 lead. It also gave Acta yet another reason to keep Harris, come Monday's game, atop the lineup.
"Throughout my entire career -- minor leagues, Class A ball, everything -- I've always hit leadoff," Harris said. "It doesn't matter where I hit, but I lean more toward leading off because it's almost like you get to create havoc, and I like starting some trouble and causing pitchers some problems. You know, I'm comfortable there."