There are even reminders on the clocks.
“I had to take a few weeks to think about it and reached a pretty simple conclusion: I could only come here if I knew the World Series stuff wouldn’t bother me,” Harris said. “And once I realized I could get past it pretty quickly, I was really excited to join the Nationals.”
Harris arrives as a critical part of Washington’s baseball history. He threw the cutter that Howie Kendrick sliced into the right field foul pole inside Minute Maid Park on Oct. 30. That Game 7 homer left Harris in disbelief, hands on his knees, head shaking, and gave the Nationals a lead they didn’t lose. They won the World Series two innings later. Harris signed a three-year, $24 million deal about two months after that and now finds himself in an ongoing celebration.
The Nationals were sized for World Series rings Wednesday. They will take part in a parade in West Palm Beach on Thursday night. They face the Astros on Saturday, a club full of Harris’s former teammates, and this will seep into the season. A banner will go up at Nationals Park on April 2. Players will receive their rings April 4. And Harris will watch, and he will clap for his new buddies, and he may get stuck remembering a pitch can never have back.
“It’s not like anybody is rubbing it in my face,” Harris said. “I’m happy for these guys. Really happy.”
It was an odd start of spring training for the 35-year-old. He spent the past five seasons with the Houston Astros, and helped them to a title in 2017. But that has since been tainted by the sign-stealing scandal that keeps coursing through baseball. So last Thursday, in his first meeting with the local media, Harris was pressed on the validity of that championship, what he knew about the illegal sign-stealing scheme and whether he regrets not speaking up to hitters who participated in it.
He told reporters he is willing to discuss whatever he knows with the Nationals. Closer Sean Doolittle thought Harris’s apology, and openness to continued dialogue, really resonated in the clubhouse. The character report was that Harris is a very good person. The Nationals were also intrigued by the way he’s pitched.
He led all qualified American League relievers with a 1.50 ERA last season. His reverse splits — as a right-hander who excels against lefties — will be even more important with a new three-batter-minimum rule for relievers. The Nationals’ bullpen ERA in 2019, an alarming 5.66, was the worst ever for a playoff team. That led to signing Harris and re-signing Daniel Hudson,giving Manager Dave Martinez a handful of late-inning options.
Martinez envisions Harris pitching the seventh or eighth, then using either Hudson or Doolittle in the ninth. But he has mentioned Harris as a closer, if need be, and likes how adept he is at retiring left-handed hitters. Harris’s two-pitch mix includes a cutter and curveball. The cutter is his go-to, thrown about 58 percent of the time last season, and often inside to lefties. In 2015, when lefties had a .129 batting average against him, that pitch made up 80 percent of his overall usage.
“The more years you spend in the league, the more you have to mix it up and stay ahead of the book on yourself,” Harris said. “Everyone knows I like to throw my cutter a lot. But when I throw it and where I throw it keeps evolving.”
After Harris passed the World Series champions signs in the hallway and looked at the World Series champions clock and put on a white uniform with a World Series champions patch on its sleeve, he readied for an inning of live batting practice. He fired a flurry of warmup pitches to catcher Raudy Read. The cutters made a loud popping noise. The curveballs reached a softer landing. And soon Harris left the bullpen through a swinging black gate and started toward the mound.
The first hitter he faced was Ryan Zimmerman. The second, of all people, was Kendrick.
“Come on, Howie!” a fan hanging on the fence yelled. “Hit one out to right field again!”
Kendrick took a pitch, then another, then swung at a front-door, middle-in cutter. It wasn’t low like the cutter in Game 7 of the World Series. But Kendrick’s bat sliced it, much like that decisive pitch, and sent it flying foul out of the practice field. The at-bat ended with Kendrick chopping a grounder up the middle. But their next matchup, the last one of Harris’s simulated inning, finished with Kendrick watching a cutter for strike three.
Harris walked toward the plate and smiled. Kendrick laughed and tipped his cap.
Read more on the Nationals: