With New Opportunity, Harris Eyes Strong Finish

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 30, 2009

ST. LOUIS, Aug. 29 -- Willie Harris became a starting center fielder for the Washington Nationals this week only because Nyjer Morgan fractured his left hand, and that's no way to do it, Harris said on Saturday. Utility players crave regular playing time, sure, but they'd rather earn it with a tear of their own, not a bad break for a teammate.

"You don't want anybody to get hurt in order to get a shot to play," Harris said before his second consecutive start. "You want to go out there and play well and earn some at-bats like Ronnie [Belliard] did. He started going out there and swinging the bat well; he earned those at-bats. That's the thing, as utility players, we look forward to. We want to earn those at-bats."

But now Harris has them, and he wants to finish his season with a flourish. In 2008, Harris earned a two-year, $3 million contract after hitting .251 with a career-high 13 home runs. Those numbers correlated with frequent playing time: He had 367 at-bats and started 87 games.

This year, Harris has demonstrated many virtues -- he plays with energy; he prepares; he can handle almost any position -- but the numbers have suffered with sporadic playing time.

Harris, hitting .230 with five home runs through 230 at-bats, believes his play improves with frequent starts. Before the Nationals acquired Morgan on June 30, Harris was actually close to securing the everyday job in center field. From June 19 to June 29, he started 10 games in a row in center.

"I felt like I was where I wanted to be," Harris said. "And then, I went back to the bench and kind of lost it there. It's difficult. And now hopefully I can get it going here soon again. It might take me a couple games to get it going, but I will."

Asked about goals for finishing the season, Harris nodded emphatically and said, "Oh yeah, I've got my goals. Where I want to finish at. What I want my numbers to be when it's over. Are you asking me what there are? No. Can't tell you that. I'll tell you this: I've got to get going to reach them."

Hazards of Headfirst Slides

The Nationals would eventually like Morgan, injured while sliding headfirst into third base, to adopt a foot-first sliding technique. Or at least develop the willingness to use it sometimes.

"You go in there headfirst like that and that's the dilemma," interim manager Jim Riggleman said. "Guys feel comfortable doing it and they feel like they're quicker doing it, but your fingers, hands, wrists and elbows, all that, are exposed when that happens.

"But we talked to him about two weeks ago about making an adjustment and seeing if we could start doing some traditional slides. But it's something that will take place next spring."

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