Harris overcomes medical mystery, debuts

May 5th, 2021

WASHINGTON -- wasn’t sure where he would be five weeks into the season, but making his 2021 debut didn't top his “most likely scenario” list.

The veteran right-handed reliever was activated from the IL (right hand inflammation) on Tuesday, after a roller coaster six weeks filled with looking for answers while facing uncertainty in his 10-year career.

“I’m excited that I’m here on May 4 ready to pitch in a big league game,” Harris said before the Nationals’ 6-1 loss to the Braves. “[It] definitely didn’t look like that in March, but you never know. I’ve been pretty positive about it the whole time.”

Harris immediately saw action in the series opener, entering in the eighth inning and throwing a scoreless frame with two strikeouts. He utilized his cutter for 18 of his 23 pitches, and mixed in his curveball for the other five.

“He looked good, he really did,” manager Dave Martinez said, adding, “[Harris] was excited to be back out there, and I was excited to see him out there. He threw the ball really well. His cutter was really, really sharp, and he threw it up in the zone and threw some down that were really good.”

Harris’ medical journey began during Spring Training, when he experienced numbness in his fingers after throwing one inning in a “B” game on March 13. After undergoing an MRI in West Palm Beach, Fla., he was diagnosed with a blood clot. Harris, 36, wondered when he would be able to pitch this season, if at all.

From there, he traveled to St. Louis to seek a second opinion from Dr. Robert Thompson. A venogram revealed a surprising result -- he did not have a blood clot. The news was a big sigh of relief, but at the same time it presented even more questions. If not a clot, then what was it?

Next came the possibility of thoracic outlet syndrome, which is described by the Mayo Clinic as “a group of disorders that occur when blood vessels or nerves in the space between your collarbone and your first rib are compressed.”

“I’m not in the beginning of my career, let’s say, so getting a thoracic outlet -- pretty much -- diagnosis there was not good,” Harris said. “[I] thought maybe, 'Wow, 2021 may be over' -- and who’s to know how I’m going to come out of that?”

But like the initial blood clot diagnosis, TOS was also ruled out. Harris was cleared to resume baseball activity, which included bullpen sessions and simulated games at the Nats’ alternate training site in Fredericksburg, Va., as he continued to monitor his situation.

Harris explained that he doesn’t feel pain in his hand -- it’s more a pressure that sometimes is accompanied by discoloration -- and he’s able to pitch without thinking about it while on the mound.

“As everybody knows, medicine is a process-of-elimination deal,” Harris said. “So we’re still working down the list and obviously putting a line through the really serious things. Early on, that wasn’t the case obviously with getting the false positive with the blood clot, [that] was not good news.

“Now, we’re still working on different possible medications and therapies and things like that that maybe I can do to relieve some of my symptoms. I have good days and I have bad days, so still trying to kind of get a grasp on it, and it’s not for lack of effort by me or anybody else.”

As Harris and Martinez discussed Harris’ readiness in a recent conversation, Harris emphasized that he didn’t want to be treated any differently than other relievers in the Nationals’ bullpen. If he was on the active roster, he wanted to be given the same task he would have received if this hangup hadn’t happened. As Harris put it, “I didn’t want to be on the roster with an asterisk next to my name.” Taking that into consideration, Martinez felt that on Tuesday, Harris was ready.

“He’s put the work in,” Martinez said. “He went through an ordeal in trying to get ready and trying to get right."

Harris rejoined a Nats bullpen that entered Tuesday with a 3.57 ERA, second-lowest in the NL. The team optioned right-hander Kyle McGowin to Triple-A Rochester in a corresponding move. Harris looks to anchor the back end with Brad Hand, Daniel Hudson and Tanner Rainey, while working through a throwing hand issue that he won’t let hold him back.

“We’re going to figure it out, sooner or later,” Harris said. “I have all the confidence in the world in that. In the meantime, I’m just going to compete and whatever I have that day, I’m going to use it all.”