College Sports

Two-way player for Salukis sees pitching as key to baseball future

O'Fallon graduate Brad Harrison, a sophomore pitcher and designated hitter at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, is 4-2 with a 2.83 ERA in nine starts for the Salukis. Harrison has been the Missouri Valley Conference Pitcher of the Week three times.
O'Fallon graduate Brad Harrison, a sophomore pitcher and designated hitter at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, is 4-2 with a 2.83 ERA in nine starts for the Salukis. Harrison has been the Missouri Valley Conference Pitcher of the Week three times. Southern Illinois University Carbondale

Make no mistake, Brad Harrison still enjoys doing damage at the plate.

But the O'Fallon High graduate, a sophomore designated hitter and pitcher at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, is convinced his path to a professional career is on the mound.

The 6-foot-4, 210-pound left-hander is 4-2 with a 2.83 ERA in nine starts, with 12 walks and 58 strikeouts in 54 innings. He has limited hitters to a .207 average. Three times this season, Harrison has been the Missouri Valley Conference Pitcher of the Week.

"If I were to ever get drafted or play at that (professional) level, it would be as a PO (pitcher only)," said Harrison, 19, who was 0-3 with a 7.09 ERA as a freshman. "I want to keep putting in the work to hit as long as I can. I understand I can put in as much work as I want hitting. I just think my ceiling is higher on the mound. That's where I'll be able to have success at the next level."

Harrison, a former first baseman, is batting .292 (7-for-24) with two doubles, one home run and four RBIs. Eighth-year Salukis coach Ken Henderson is certain Harrison will be a regular offensive contributor next season.

But it's Harrison's arm that provides the most intrigue.

"His future is on the mound," Henderson said, acknowledging Harrison's hitting proficiency but pointing out his lack of speed and power. "If he continues to improve, work and do the things he's doing, I think he has a future beyond college."

Harrison has three scoreless outings. He threw a complete-game two-hitter and struck out 11 against Belmont on Feb. 27. He fired eight innings, allowed just one hit and fanned a season-high 13 against Southeast Missouri on March 6. Harrison's most recent gem came April 8 against Valparaiso, when he permitted two hits in seven innings and struck out 11.

"Against SEMO, he only let one ball leave the infield," Henderson said. "The only hit he gave up was to the first (batter) of the game — off his foot. It was ridiculous how good he was. When he's on and he's got his good stuff, it's a fun thing to watch."

Henderson said Harrison's assignments against Belmont and SEMO, of the Ohio Valley Conference, "were the dominant pitching performances I've seen in many, many years, especially back-to-back."

Harrison doesn't make a fuss over any of his accomplishments, preferring instead to learn something from every experience.

A lack of confidence, Harrison said, contributed greatly to his freshman frustrations. But he acknowledged the MVC Pitcher of the Week awards have kept his self-assurance on the upswing.

"It's pretty cool. It's humbling, for the most part," Harrison said. "At Valparaiso, I didn't feel like I was exceptionally great. To get that (award) puts it in perspective, like, 'All right, Brad, you are pretty good and you should definitely build some confidence off that.' It makes me feel good going into my next outings — keeping my head up and keeping it in the right place."

Two-way player

Harrison is the Salukis' version of Shohei Ohtani, the Japanese sensation who is in his first season as a hitter and a pitcher with the Los Angeles Angels. Harrison has enjoyed watching Ohtani's story from afar.

"He's a fun guy to watch and somebody I can look up to as a two-way guy," Harrison said. "It's impressive to see him put up the numbers. I don't think a whole lot of people can truly appreciate what he's able to accomplish. He's got to be exhausted already at this point. He has to be doing so much to take care of his body day in and day out to make sure he's ready to play.

"It's not an easy thing to do."

Harrison credits the SIUC coaching staff for ensuring he is physically ready to contribute on the mound and at the plate. Harrison doesn't take fielding practice, which could serve to mess with the delicate balance between preparation and performance.

"The two-way life is different, and it's a lot more work, but they're doing a good job making sure I'm not doing too much in practice — to where I can't be ready to throw or hit in games," Harrison said. "I haven't felt like I've been doing too much at all. I don't do any sort of defensive work. I'm basically a PO/DH. Once you start adding defensive reps and make defense a priority, too, it's hard to do all three of them at your best. The reps you're putting into one thing would be taking it out of the next.

Ken Henderson.jpg
Southern Illinois University Carbondale coach Ken Henderson SIU Carbondale athletics photo

"I still consider myself a two-way guy. Right now, I'm the first hitter off the bench, a late pinch-hit guy. I'm getting a decent amount of at-bats. But for the most part, I'm a pitcher. Pitching is the priority, and it's where I'm going to help the team the most."

Harrison will continue to monitor Ohtani's career, but he expects Ohtani will eventually have to be one thing or the other.

"After so many years of doing it, he'll probably have to (decide)," Harrison said. "Babe Ruth had to stop (pitching). It was too much for his body to do both. Even the best in the entire game, of all time, had to pick one or the other.

"So I think it's a matter of time. But to see how long (Ohtani) can do it and have success at it is very interesting to see."

Henderson pointed out that Salukis pitching coach P.J. Finigan was one of the best two-way players in SIUC history. Finigan pitched and played shortstop, graduating in 2005 and being selected in the seventh round of the amateur draft by the Detroit Tigers.

"We've got some track record with it," Henderson said. "If you have a guy who can do two things, I'm all for it. It's like having another player. I'm thrilled (Harrison) can do both. We'll continue to give him opportunities and find him ways to succeed in both areas."

Henderson lauds Harrison for handling the demands of being a two-way player.

"He understands the work ethic that's involved," Henderson said. "If you're a lazy kid and you don't have a good work ethic, you're going to cheat both areas. And he doesn't. He makes sure he gets both his hitting work done and his pitching work done. He's not cheating one or the other. Those things are vital to having someone who can do both."

Harrison is excited about the prospects of being the Salukis' primary designated hitter in 2019.

"The two-way thing, is what I've always done. It's the game of baseball," said Harrison, the son of Rich and Debbie Harrison. "Sometimes it's a lot of work, but that's what goes into it. I'm going to keep pushing and pushing and pushing to be a hitter. I love doing both parts of the game. I'm going to push the envelope as much as I can offensively."

Mound efficiency

Harrison throws five pitches: a high-80s to low-90s four-seam fastball that bears in on right-handed hitters; a two-seam fastball that runs away from right-handed hitters; a changeup he throws almost exclusively to right-handed hitters; a curveball; and a slider.

"My slider is the putaway pitch," Harrison said, who until getting two strikes on hitters is "pretty heavy with the fastball."

"The slider is the two-strike pitch," he said. "I don't throw it for a strike very often. The curveball, I would say I probably use 15 percent of the time. That's an early-in-the-count, get-ahead (pitch) to show them something other than a fastball. Then the changeup is (important) if they're aggressive on the fastball. It's not really as much as a putaway pitch. I only use it 8, 10 percent of the time."

Harrison wishes he would have made a better debut for the Salukis in 2017. But mentally, Brad Harrison said he wasn't in a good spot.

"I think (credit) goes to Coach Finigan," Harrison said. "The physical tools have been there. It was all the mental stuff and trusting what I have. Once I started to really believe and know that what I had was good enough to have success, that's when I really took off. I've done a pretty good job hitting spots and attacking the zone. At any level, if you throw strikes, you're going to have success.

"I've learned how much of the game is mental. Physically, I was there last year and I had what it took. Mentally, it just seemed like I wasn't in the right place to have that success. ... I learned from that failure."

Henderson said it was clear that Harrison lacked confidence last season.

"Coach Finigan would come to me all the time and say, 'Brad's got great stuff. He threw a great bullpen. I think he's going to be really good,'" Henderson said. "Then we would put him out there on the mound and you wouldn't see the same guy. I think it was, 'I'm a freshman. Do I belong? Can I have success at this level?' That's a pretty typical thing.

"Once he understood, 'Hey, I'm pretty good. I can get D-I hitters out,' that confidence grew. It should because he has really good stuff."

How far will ongoing success take Harrison? He will be eligible to be taken in the amateur draft in 2019.

"I occasionally think about the long run, the next year or so," Harrison said. "I don't look past that at all, though. It's day-to-day, but at the same time, it's 'What can I do to make myself the best I can be at this point next year or at this point in six months?'

"I've had my ups and downs. Now it feels like I can learn and take off from all the stuff that's happened to me. Thing are continuing to look up and will keep getting better. I've just got to keep putting in the work."

While the odds of reaching the major leagues are stacked against most prospects, Henderson is banking on Harrison.

"The thing about him is his stuff is so good," Henderson said. "He has command of every pitch. He can spin that breaking ball (and) he has great life on his fastball. The thing runs all over the place. He has a knack for pitching.

"He's highly intelligent and he's driven. He wants to have success in baseball, and playing beyond (college) is very important to him. That's why he's going to keep getting better and better. His best years are ahead of him."

David Wilhelm: 618-239-2665; @DavidMWilhelm