Thrust into tough situation, Harris learns on the fly

June 25th, 2023

TORONTO -- If the main goal this season is to allow to gain experience, there’s odd value in the mess he encountered on Saturday afternoon.

The left-hander entered the A’s 7-3 loss to the Blue Jays one-third of an inning earlier than expected, as opener allowed two earned runs and retired just two of the six batters he faced in the first frame at Rogers Centre.

With runners on first and second, Harris got Daulton Varsho to ground out in three pitches to end the threat and give himself a clean start to the second inning. More importantly, he didn’t let the moment get too big.

“It’s kind of [like] anything in life, I guess, it’s as big as you let it get,” Harris said. “I kind of just figured if I could throw some strikes, force him to put it in play, [it would be ideal]. … Getting that one, in that situation, was big for us.”

That third out in the first was the type of steady-hand moment that comes solely from experience.

Ahead of the loss, A’s manager Mark Kotsay highlighted the importance of allowing rookies to build confidence and maturity as the rebuild carries on in Oakland. Harris wasn’t necessarily dominant on Saturday, but a busy outing against a strong lineup gifted Oakland’s No. 20 prospect a prime opportunity to learn on the fly.

“One of those days when I felt like everything was almost there,” said Harris. “Learning experiences both ways. Don't try and worry too much about the overall thing while you're in the moment -- that's a big thing I would take away.

“It felt good to limit it to three [runs] while not feeling like I had my best stuff throughout. I was pretty happy with it, but a couple of things to take from it here and there, for sure.”

Harris gave up four runs on five hits, while walking four and hitting a batter over 4 2/3 innings. His first run allowed came in the second, when Harris yielded a double, a single and a two-out walk that loaded the bases before hitting Vladimir Guerrero Jr. with a pitch to bring in a run. Two other runs came in the following frame on a two-run homer by Danny Jansen, who swung on a first-pitch cutter that clipped the edge of the strike zone to clear the left-center-field wall.

Compared to Harris’ past two outings -- in which he allowed three earned runs in 13 innings -- his performance in Toronto looked like a step back, though his six strikeouts gave Harris something to build on.

“He did a nice job going through that lineup and getting to a point where we felt good about taking him out,” said Kotsay. “Hogan did his job today.”

The loss to the Blue Jays was the latest chapter in the A’s opener saga.

Pitching ahead of Harris for the third time, Fujinami saw a steep decline in performance, allowing two runs on four hits in two-thirds of an inning after posting a 1.35 ERA over 6 2/3 innings in his previous six outings. That span included his second outing as the opener, when Fujinami pitched a clean inning before handing it over to Harris for seven frames of one-run ball in a 2-1 win over the Rays on June 13.

Most of the damage against Fujinami came on the fastball, which reached 101 mph, but didn’t feature enough movement against a Blue Jays lineup that seemed to be hunting for the heater.

“He needs to keep hitters off balance,” Kotsay said. “He didn’t throw enough splitters today to keep [hitters] off the fastball. But he’s had some success recently. We felt great about him being out there. It just didn’t go well for him today.”

It was another illustration of everything being “almost there,” as Harris put it.

As for following an opener, add it to the learning opportunities the lefty has embraced since arriving in the Majors.

“I don’t mind it,” said Harris. “Really all I do is, whatever my normal routine is, I just push it back 10 or 15 minutes and just start everything a little bit later. Being up here [in the big leagues] is pretty cool, so I’ll throw whenever they tell me to throw.”