When Rangers lefty Matt Harrison hobbled off the mound in the second inning of a game against the Astros in May of 2014, you, like any rational observer (such as the esteemed yours truly), probably experienced the lumbar equivalent of a sympathetic pregnancy. You probably winced — and just in case the initial wince didn’t register with the awww-jeeeez registry, winced again — and then reached for your lower back, wiggled it around while listening to the unmistakable sounds of Pachinko and fell to the floor in unmitigated agony after reaching for the business card of a chiropractor.
Or something like that.
It was painful to watch, and more painful, surely, for poor Matt Harrison to bear. Having already undergone a pair of 2013 surgeries to repair a herniated disc, Harrison, with his head bowed and back slightly but tellingly bent, walked gingerly to the dugout that day with four earned runs (in 1.2 innings) in his wake and, worse, one lumbar spinal disc fusion surgery in his future.
Couched in the careful language of objective reports were subtle eulogies to his once ascendant career, little nods to the possibility — the probability — that the 6-foot-4 former All-Star had thrown his last big league pitch, or, really, his last pitch, period. After all, nobody else in the history of baseball — a sport, mind you, in which unfettered actions of the spinal column are pretty key to performance — had ever undergone the same surgical procedure, let alone returned from it. In a season that saw so many Rangers sojourn in long disability, Harrison seemed bound for a permanent stay.
Now fast-forward — to do anything less expeditious is to consider in real time, or something like it, the tedious rehab and dreadful misgivings that Harrison must have endured — to the evening of July 21, 2015, a full 14 months after he surrendered his body to anesthesia and his back, and career, to both the promise and the limits of corrective surgery. Having allowed six earned runs in four innings in his first post-surgery start, on July 8, against Arizona, Harrison seemed poised, sadly, to serve as the Rockies’ second batting-practice pitcher of the evening. The facts were for facing, not denying: Not only had his fastball averaged a JUCO-like 88.4 mph against the Diamondbacks, but Harrison would be facing the National League’s top-scoring offense in the pitcher-unfriendly air of Denver, Colo.
Would this be the day when Harrison considered church-league softball?
The final not-terrible, not-horrible, not-bad, in fact very good line: 6 innings pitched, 7 hits, 1 walk, 0 runs.
How the heck did this medical test case of an athlete manage to stymie Troy Tulowitzki & Co. in the house often known as Coors Canaveral? Well, in a nutshell, he bent his oft-mentioned back. He kept the ball down, no easy thing in the wheezy-thin air of the Mile High City. Unblessed with radar-fetish velocity, Harrison has always been a not-quite-crafty lefty who relies on a naturally sinking two-seamer and an equally down-sloping changeup to register outs. He doesn’t whiff people, averaging 5.5 K/9 across his eight MLB seasons. He induces ground balls. He coaxes double plays — and did so on Tuesday to the tune of not one but two twin killings, the latter punctuating his sixth and final frame.
Yep, like a lot of not-terrible and often very good pitchers, Harrison has always lived best and most fruitfully at the bottom of the zone.
Witness his lifetime work:
And he did so again, mostly, versus the launch-happy Rockies.
Witness his night’s work:
Said Harrison to reporters after the game:
I made that adjustment in my last bullpen (session), and that helped me get more downhill. (Tonight) I was able to get my sinkers sinking instead of running across the plate, and I think that made a huge difference in keeping the ball down and making them put the ball on the ground.
And after keeping the ball down, he did what a pitcher in full command of his body can do: He moved the ball up, changing the batter’s eye level and eventually making his statement far more emphatic by striking out Tulowitzki on a high — out-of-the-strike-zone high — 91.7 mph fastball to end the third inning.
Granted, that 91.7 mph heater — the best of his two starts — occupied just the lower end of his pre-injury average fastball velocity of 91 to 93 mph. And his lack of swing-and-miss stuff, always a concern even in his best seasons, could become more problematic if he doesn’t continue to add oomph to his four-seamer. But the good news for Harrison, a man in need of good news, is that for one night in Colorado, his fastball velocity went up, to an average of 89.1 mph, and his pitches, when desired, mostly stayed down.
That’s a pitcher whose back is functioning in back-like ways.
That’s a pitcher — you really want to feel this — who’s back.
John Paschal is a regular contributor to The Hardball Times and The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.