If he looked untrained, as if he were thrust into a new position in the fourth hour of a long game in the third month of a long season — that’s because he had never played first in a 10-year career. But that’s exactly why this forgettable sequence was important.
Harrison had borrowed a first baseman’s mitt from Howie Kendrick. It wasn’t broken in. To make sure the ball stuck in the pocket, he crouched and secured it with his bare hand. It was both far from textbook and subtly savvy. D’Arnaud was out by a step, and the Nationals won, 8-7, in the next inning. By then, Harrison was in left field, continuing his ongoing trip around the diamond.
After that game, he had appeared in his career at second base, third base, shortstop, left field, right field, pitcher and first base. The Nationals re-signed him in October, to a one-year deal worth $1 million, looking to mix offense with bench versatility. In recent years, they often have sacrificed the former to carry the latter. Think Wilmer Difo or Adrián Sanchez bouncing from position to position, only to give little at the plate. Harrison, though, is a two-time all-star, a 33-year-old veteran, a right-handed bat who can make some noise.
In September, Manager Dave Martinez told Harrison that he would love to hire him as a coach one day. It turns out that, in the meantime, Harrison has some playing left.
“He can do multiple things, play multiple positions, come in to steal a base if need be," Martinez said Monday. “He’s just a good, all-around baseball player.”
Here is an unofficial list of Harrison’s roles for the Nationals (unofficial because it is subject to grow): He is, above all, the “super utility” bench player Martinez covets, available for most spots in most situations. He is a right-handed-hitting left fielder to spell Kyle Schwarber, who has a career .650 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against lefties. He is a sure-handed third baseman if Carter Kieboom needs a break. He is a sure-handed second baseman if Starlin Castro needs a break. He may be the team’s backup shortstop, in a pinch, should Trea Turner get hurt midgame and his replacement — say, García — is a flight away in Rochester, N.Y.
He is not, however, the Nationals’ emergency catcher. At least he is not raising his hand to be.
“I’m with them in spirit,” Harrison said with a smile and a shake of his head. “But not physically.”
But does he have a catcher’s mitt, just in case? How many gloves are pouring out of his locker?
“I got my two main ones that I use. I got a backup for all of them,” Harrison explained. “I typically use the same glove at second that I use at third. Same thing for my outfield spots. One outfield glove, but I got a backup for if I have to go anywhere else. Only one I don’t have is catcher’s mitt and first base mitt.”
That’s one, two … a lot. Harrison’s defensive breakdown reads like a decade of being the most talented kid in Little League: 394 starts at second base, 214 at third, 47 in right field, 37 in left, 22 at shortstop, four at designated hitter. Then tack on one appearance on the mound, then one inning of first base last summer, and there you have it.
This constant shifting goes back to his college days at Cincinnati. He eased in by flipping between shortstop and second for the Bearcats. In the minors, as he tried to make it with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the club added third to his plate. His years on the move are why he feels little need to focus on one position in drills.
“It’s something that I’ve taken a lot of pride in, working at other spots that I might not have as many games,” said Harrison, who was slightly better than a major league-average hitter in 2020. “But over the years, you really get that experience from playing, and there’s not a spot out there that I don’t feel comfortable at other than, you know, behind the plate or on the mound.”
It’s almost as if he wants Martinez to read his quotes about catching. This spring, Harrison has appeared at second base in two games. In his first game, against the Houston Astros on Monday, he crushed a home run onto the left field concourse. When he got to the dugout, he smiled at hitting coach Kevin Long and yelled, “What did I tell you?” Then he flashed another skill.
With the bases loaded in the fourth, Harrison hit a grounder to third and took off sprinting. Upon beating the throw, he high-stepped past the bag as if the grass were covered in coals. A scattered crowd applauded. Harrison clapped twice, smiled (again) and pointed to the bench. And a few of his teammates pointed right back.
“That’s who he is,” Martinez said of the big and tiny ways Harrison had affected that game. “That’s what I love about him.”