Matt Harrison’s first pitch for the Rangers since May of 2014 was always going to be the evening’s triumphal moment. The fastball moved over the lower inside part of the strike zone for a strike but after that, the game against the Arizona Diamondbacks became one Harrison would probably like to forget.
After a smooth first inning, Harrison ran in to trouble in the second inning. With two out and runners at the corner, the big lefty elevated a slider that second baseman Cliff Pennington lined to left field for a 1-0 lead.
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The next hitter, shortstop Nick Ahmed, blooped a soft liner into left-center field for a 2-0 lead. Then the big blow of the 32 – pitch inning came when Harrison again left a pitch up in the zone, this time to center fielder and National League All-Star A.J. Pollock who hit a three-run homer for a 5-0 lead.
After 77 pitches, Harrison left the game trailing 5-2. He pitched only 4 + innings before giving way to reliever Anthony Bass following a leadoff single in the fifth inning.
Harrison clearly has a long way to go before his return can be deemed a success on the field rather than just a success in the heart. Perhaps the best way to describe Harrison’s first start is laborious.
He never looked completely settled on the mound, which is understandable given the circumstances. But much of the perceived discomfort was a result of his physical countenance.
Harrison’s velocity was in the mid to low 80’s and when the tried to dial it up, he often held on to the ball too long skipping the pitch in the dirt. He also appeared uncomfortable pitching from the stretch and that was a problem because he was pitching from behind in the count for much of the game putting runners on base in every inning he tossed.
When Matt Harrison is on his game, his changeup induces a high rate of ground balls (he was on the mound in a 2011 game versus the New York Yankees in which he enduced six double-plays). However, of the sixteen hitters he faced, only 5 hit the ball on the ground and two of those grounders went for hits.
On the other hand, Harrison allowed 6 fly balls and one line drive of which three went for hits and one a long homerun. One reason that he gave up so many fly balls was his lack of confidence in his velocity.
After seeing that his fastball was topping out in the high 80’s, Harrison was hesitant to throw it for strikes and he began trying to nibble around the edges of the strike zone with his off-speed pitches. However, once the Diamondbacks got Harrison into a fastball count they made solid contact with his fastball more often than not.
While the home team announcers and home town media might proclaim Harrison’s night a success simply because he returned to the mound, he must pitch better if he hopes to remain in the rotation and help this struggling pitching staff. Harrison won’t pitch again for over a week due to the All-Star Break but when he returns to the mound for start No. 2, the feel-good story will fade into the background and the Rangers will need to see a better pitching line than 4+ innings, 6 runs, 6 hits, 3 walks, one strikeout in 77 pitches.
The Rangers’ hitters have done the team few favors in the team’s recent slide out of playoff contention (including scoring no runs in the third inning despite loading the bases with no outs) but the struggles of the pitching staff have been disheartening. The bar for Harrison has now been raised and it is not good enough for him to simply make a start, he must make quality starts.
He replaced struggling starter Nick Martinez in the rotation but if what Harrison showed on Wednesday night is all that his rebuilt back will allow him to be, he will soon be replaced in the rotation himself. Moral victories don’t count for anything of substance and not all good stories end happily; here’s hoping Matt Harrison’s story just got off to a rocky start last night.