Nearly forgotten, humble Harrison now Texas' ace
From surgery to demotion, lefty ovecomes adversity to draw Opening Day start
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux found the passage in Diamondbacks Magazine of all places. He's not sure who wrote it or said it, but he clipped it out and saved it.
A few years ago, he showed it to pitcher Matt Harrison and still keeps it in the organizer that he carries with him each day. The passage reads:
"But greatness is not revealed on the practice field. Promise perhaps, but eventually the athlete must get into the game. Competition is the crucible where the gifts, the skills and the desires are transformed into truth. The game is where the player comes face to face with himself and the truth of who he is."
W: Norris L: Harrison SV: Bedard
Over the years Harrison has had to come to grips with who he was as a pitcher and weigh that against what he wanted to be. Sometimes the view was painful through surgery, injury, demotion and getting left off the 2010 playoff roster, something Harrison said he will never forget.
Now Harrison can look at himself in a new light. He will be on the mound when the Rangers face the Astros at 7:05 p.m. CT on Sunday at Minute Maid Park. Harrison is the Rangers' Opening Day starter and de facto ace of the staff.
"You strive to be the best pitcher you can be and it's a great honor to be the Opening Day starter," Harrison said. "You may only get a chance to do it once in your career. I'm going to enjoy it as much as possible and give us a chance to win."
Being the Opening Day starter is the latest reward for a pitcher who worked his way up from exile and near oblivion to become one of the top pitchers in the American League. The transformation has been dramatic.
"I think I've seen secure growth ... growth in his security," Maddux said. "I wasn't here his rookie year, but in his second year there might have been some uncertainty about his confidence. But I've just seen a guy who has learned things the hard way. I think some of the trials and tribulations that set him back ... trials and tribulations make the heart grow stronger. That's how it's been for him. Nothing comes easy for him."
The rookie year was fine. Harrison, one year after being acquired from the Braves, was 9-3 with a 5.49 ERA in 15 starts for the Rangers in 2008. That included a shutout of the A's in September. He didn't get any votes for AL Rookie of the Year, but it was a good start for a young left-hander with promise for better things in the future.
Instead, things got worse. The next two years were bad. To sum up, Harrison was in and out of the Rangers' rotation, shoved on the disabled list three times, had shoulder surgery, banished to the bullpen, optioned to Triple-A and left off the playoff roster. In between all of that, he made 17 starts and 31 relief appearances for the Rangers with a record of 7-7 and a 5.34 ERA.
|Projected Opening Day lineup|
That's when he went to work to find the truth of who he was as a pitcher. His conclusion was that he needed to be mentally stronger, more focused and more confident in his abilities. He needed to shut out negative thoughts and distractions. He spent the winter studying the mental side of the game. A book by sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman was especially helpful and so were long chats with former Rangers pitcher Cliff Lee.
"Three years ago it was rough," Harrison said. "Learning to trust myself and having confidence in myself was the biggest thing. A big turning point was being left off the playoff roster. That really motivated me to become a better pitcher."
In 2011 he came to camp having to win a job in the rotation. He was not favored to do so but won the spot by knockout and has not been dislodged since. Over the past two seasons, he is 32-20 with a 3.34 ERA in 63 outings. Only seven other Major League pitchers have won more games in that stretch than Harrison.
"He gives us a lot of confidence," outfielder David Murphy said. "He was an All-Star last year, he is coming off two great years. You can see the transformation from who he was coming into the league to where he is now. He is determined and focused to get better. It's very comforting to know there is a guy with that type of talent who is still at the point of his career where he is determined to get even better."
The Rangers rewarded Harrison with a five-year, $55 million contract extension in the offseason. That has served to help reinforce Harrison's confidence but also renew his determination to get better. Despite his quiet nature, Harrison has never made it a secret that one of his goals is to win the Cy Young Award.
"With his confidence, he has become his own guy," pitcher Colby Lewis said. "He was our best pitcher last year. He definitely deserves the honor of pitching on Opening Day. Any time you're able to establish yourself and get under contract, I think all that does is relax you. You know you belong. That's the way I felt when I came back from Japan. You're confident you know where you're going to be for a long period of time and you're able to relax and perform."
Harrison, who once eagerly sought out others for advice, has now become a role model himself. Derek Holland, who is trying to rebound from what he views as a subpar season, said he has been inspired by the success Harrison has had in the face of adversity over the past few years.
"I just admire what he has done and the hard work he has put in," Holland said. "He's a great teammate. I feel like we've grown up together and really become close. I really look up to him. So much stuff has rubbed off on me -- his focus on the mental part of the game, the books that he has read, how he's come back from adversity. It's all helped me become a better pitcher."
Rookie pitcher Nick Tepesch is another who has benefited from being around Harrison. Tepesch's unlikely rise from unknown prospect to No. 5 starter was helped considerably by spending seven weeks with Harrison.
"He's talked with me about little things here and there," Tepesch said. "After my outings, if he was there to see it, he would sit down and help me look at some of the things that took place out there. It's helped me a lot, absolutely, to have somebody who has gone through it and been around for years. He's accomplished a lot. Any time you can learn from somebody like that, it's great."
Just as he went from mop-up reliever to staff ace, Harrison has gone from eager student to quiet mentor.
"I don't want to drastically change the way I am," Harrison said. "But this is a step forward from coming into camp as a fourth or fifth starter. I still want to go about my business in the same way, but I also want to be a leader. I feel there is a lot that I can pass on as a leader."
That's part of the truth about the pitcher Harrison has become.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.