Out of sick bay, Navy hurler eyes Draft
Harris' status will be determined ultimately by military
Mitch Harris' right arm produces a blazing fastball, one that may some day get him to the Major Leagues. But it was two left feet that almost cost him his senior season at the United States Naval Academy, a gaffe that could have put a big-time dent in his dream of playing professional baseball.
Harris, rated by most as one of the top collegiate pitchers available for next month's First-Year Player Draft, spent nearly seven weeks on the sidelines after suffering a minor separation of the AC joint in his right shoulder. But the injury wasn't a result of his delivering one of those mid-90s fastballs against Army, Holy Cross or any other Patriot League opponent. Rather, it occurred against his teammates in a Feb. 17 intrasquad game. And, to make matters worse, it happened while Harris was running the bases.
"What really hurts is that there were two outs and if I made out the game would have been over," Harris said. "I was the last hitter and our closer [JD Melton] was in and I've never hit him well. But I hit a home run and as I was trotting around the bases, I tripped. Our dugout is right by third base and everyone was laughing and I was too.
Thoughts of fractures and requiring surgery raced through Harris' mind before he was told that he merely suffered a minor separation. So, rather than losing his senior season and a chance at getting drafted again -- the Braves selected in the 24th round last June -- Harris only had to rehab and wait. He finally got back on the mound at the end of March and has resumed his role as ace of the Navy staff.
Harris is 2-1 with a 2.10 ERA through five starts. He's struck out 26 and walked only five through 25 2/3 innings heading into his start Saturday against Holy Cross in the Patriot League tournament. He says he's back to 100 percent and the numbers certainly support that claim. Harris also has more peace of mind these days knowing that his clumsiness didn't cost him.
"I was worried in the beginning," said Harris, who has 20 career wins at Navy. "What were scouts going to think about me having to come back from an arm injury. But I didn't do it throwing. That would have been a whole different scenario. I knew once I was able to get healthy I'd be right back where I was."
That Harris can hit a little also makes him more appealing to prospective teams. He was originally an infielder when he arrived at the Naval Academy before making a move to the mound as a sophomore. Harris, who is a utility player when not pitching, has 16 homers -- including six this season -- 111 RBIs during his career. He could someday benefit a National League club in much the same manner that Micah Owings has done with Arizona.
Harris is just one of three Navy players who have ever been drafted. Teammate Jonathan Johnston was also drafted last season, going to Oakland in the 42nd round. Toronto made southpaw Matt Foster a 13th-round pick in 2003 but he only pitched sporadically in three seasons at Pulaski of the Appalachian League, the last of which was 2006.
That a service academy player would garner such consideration isn't unheard of. The United States Military Academy at West Point has had four players drafted since 1997, two of which were chosen last year. Seattle took Nick Hill in the seventh round -- he's currently pitching at High Desert of the Class A California League -- while Milan Dinga went to the Angels in the 10th round. He began the year in extended spring training, pitched a scoreless inning for Triple-A Salt Lake and was returned to Cedar Rapids of the Midwest League, where he is currently nursing a sore shoulder. Both served on active duty when their respective seasons ended last year.
Harris will learn in another month where could be headed, at least from a baseball standpoint. Whether he gets such an opportunity immediately remains to be seen. The Navy reviews each player's situation -- regardless of sport -- on a case-by-case basis so there's a chance that Harris may not be able to jump right into professional baseball like Hill and Dinga did. Currently all such requests are being held in abeyance by the Navy.
"To be honest, I'm not even thinking about it," Harris said. "I'm just thinking about doing the best I can to get drafted as high as possible. When Draft Day comes, I plan on signing and we'll work out the kinks from there. As far as the whole commitment thing, I've voiced my side as well as I can.
"The best-case scenario is that we can work something out where I can serve as well as fulfill my dream of playing pro ball. I'm hoping that that's how it is going to work out."
Now if he can just get that rounding third base thing down.
Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.