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All's well that ends well, but Tigers' Harrison still perplexed by 'unexplainable' wait

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Josh Harrison

Lakeland, Fla. — Of course he remembers breaking up Justin Verlander’s bid for a third career no-hitter on May 18, 2012. And he’s not apologizing for it.

“Somebody asked me yesterday, ‘Do I want to apologize,’” second baseman Josh Harrison said Sunday morning, in his first media session as a member of the Tigers. “No, no, I don’t. You can’t change the past. You’ve got to live in the present.”

Breaking up no-hitters is kind of his thing, by the way. Harrison broke up two of them in 2017. He singled to stop Alex Cobb’s bid in the seventh inning. Then, most dramatically, he hit a walk-off home run in the 10th inning to break up Rich Hill’s no-hitter and hang a big fat L next to his name.

His memory of breaking Verlander’s heart was, to say the least, vivid.

“I was leading off and I was the DH that game,” he said. “You probably don’t remember my first at-bat, Don Kelly ran a ball down in center field that I hit pretty decent. I had some good at-bats off him all night.”

Harrison remembers looking at the radar gun in the seventh inning, just before he went down to the batting cage to loosen up for his next at-bat, which would come with one out in the ninth inning.

“I noticed his 94 mph was turning into 98-99, like he saved it,” Harrison said. “So I get up in the ninth inning and I was like, ‘Get ready for 98-99,’ and he probably threw me six straight sliders. I think I swung at the first two and I won’t even say they were 58-footers. They were like 38-footers.”

But Harrison was able to slow himself down and battle. Verlander threw one too many breaking balls, and Harrison fisted one up the middle for a single.

“I don’t even want to say the pitch he threw was a strike,” Harrison said. “But it was enough that I was able to get my bat on it. The rest is history.”

The Tigers made the signing of Harrison official on Saturday — one-year, $2 million — ending what for him was a baffling free agent winter.

“I don’t want to say aggravating,” he said when asked about sitting on the market without a job for so long. “Just unexplainable. At the end of the day I landed here and I am glad to be here. But there are a lot of guys out there still in the boat I was in.

“Just things we can’t explain.”

Harrison said he made the most of it, spending extra time with his family and keeping himself busy, all the while maintaining his usual off-season workout program in Cincinnati. 

“But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t sitting there going, ‘Oh man, spring training started,’” he said. “I knew it was just a matter of time. It was unfortunate I had to wait. But there are other people still waiting.”

As it turned out, though, Detroit seems like a very natural fit for him. He’s from Cincinnati, so he’s still close to home. He and his wife Brittany both have family in Detroit. Harrison’s uncle, John Shelby, played for the Tigers. His teammate and close friend for nearly a decade in Pittsburgh is the Tigers new shortstop — Jordy Mercer.

Shoot, back in the day his favorite team on Sega Sports Talk Baseball was the old Cecil Fielder, Mickey Tettleton, Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell Tigers team of the early 1990s.

“After weighing everything, it felt like the right fit,” Harrison said. “I know they need a second baseman. Me and Jordy work well up the middle and we talked throughout the process. I just wanted to be somewhere that felt good to me and where I’d have an opportunity to help.”

That he requested and was granted jersey No. 1 was no coincidence.

“I’m honored to wear it,” he said. “Sweet Lou, a nickname like that says enough, and I know what he meant to this organization. He spent 19 years here. But I grew up wearing No. 1, not specifically for Lou Whitaker, but I do know he was No. 1. With my uncle playing here, I knew about Detroit.

“I just thought it would be cool (to honor Whitaker by wearing the number). I think of myself as somewhat of an old-school player.”

Harrison, 31, went through a full rebuilding process — from the bottom to the playoffs — with the Pirates. But he’s not looking at this as a do-over.

“New place, new things — it’s exciting,” he said. “I know what I bring to the table and I am excited to see how I can blend in with these guys. Talking to Jordy, he’s already prepared me. We’re going to give it what we got.

“You never know what can happen.”

Both general manager Al Avila and manager Ron Gardenhire talked about Harrison’s value in the clubhouse, the energy, experience and leadership he can provide to a young team. Harrison said whatever leadership traits he has come organically.

“I don’t think it’s anything where I set out to say I’m going to be a leader and veteran presence,” he said. “It’s kind of just how I am wired. Like I said, I’m blessed. My uncle played 11 years in the big leagues. My brother (Vince) played 10 years professionally, got hurt, and now he’s managing Kane County (Class A affiliate of the Diamondbacks).

“Growing up I had a lot of people close to me who had baseball knowledge. So just naturally, when I’m talking to people it just comes out. It’s not like I am trying to be a teacher or a leader. But I have a lot of information from my lineage that I can bring to the table to help others. “

Harrison, who has had a bone broken in his left hand the last two seasons, was scheduled to go through his first battery of workouts on the back fields Sunday. He was limited to 97 games last year and he was asked if he planned to wear a protective devise on the hand.

“I’d be a fool if I am not protecting it,” he said. “But everything is good. I can say I am healthy and blessed. It’s been a while. I am feeling really good.”

Still, Gardenhire said he wouldn’t rush Harrison into any games right away. He will take live batting practice and do infield work with quality control coach Joe Vavra on the back fields for the next couple of days.

Gardenhire said he expects Harrison could make his spring debut against the Yankees in Lakeland Wednesday. 

“I had no idea where I would end up,” Harrison said. “And we have two younger kids who have to experience something new. But I am excited for this, excited for a fresh start.”

Twitter @cmccosky