Jeff Harris: Mr. Versatility

TACOMA, Wash – Sometimes in order to keep playing the game you love, your talents need to be flexible. Versatile, even. Just ask Tacoma Rainiers starting pitcher Jeff Harris.

Harris began his professional career as a reliever in the Minnesota Twins organization in 1995, but was released in 2000. A year later, Harris found himself playing for Chico of the independent Western Baseball League.

There was just one catch. The club wanted Harris to become a starter.

"As a reliever with the Twins, I saw maybe four or five hitters in a game and this time I've got to go through the lineup two or three times," said Harris of the adjustment. "I hadn't started a professional game before I got in the independent leagues. I got in that role for three and a half years and really learned a lot about myself."

The right-hander was impressive in his new role, placing fourth in the WBL in strikeouts in 2001, and leading the league in punch-outs in 2002. Harris then signed on with Quebec of the independent Northeastern League, where he would spend the next 1 ½ seasons, until his contract was purchased by the Mariners in June 2004.

During those long years in baseball's Siberia, Harris, originally drafted by Seattle in 1993, battled, not only with opposing hitters, but with discouragement.

"I was a little disappointed after having three good years in the independent leagues that nobody would give me a shot," the 30-year-old explained. "It was a great experience for me and I learned a lot about the game. I'm just glad to have another shot in an organization. This is a great organization and a great place to be, and I'm happy to be here."

Jeff Harris finished strong for Tacoma last summer, delivering a complete game shutout in his last start for the Rainiers, but new additions to Tacoma's 2005 staff pushed Harris down a level to begin the 2005 season. The University of San Francisco alum responded by beginning the season 5-0 for San Antonio, and posting a 2.10 ERA. The combination of Harris' success for the Missions and injuries to the Tacoma staff brought Harris back to Cheney Stadium on May 23.

What does Harris think of the difference between Double-A and Triple-A hitters?

"I don't really think there's that much difference," Harris claims. "In Triple-A you've got older guys, guys who've been around. They're a little more patient up here."

Judging by his success in Tacoma, it's hard to argue that Triple-A hitters find Harris' stuff easier to handle than their Double-A counterparts. Harris is a perfect 4-0 in his four starts for the Rainiers. His 2.52 ERA is impressive, as is his ability to keep balls in the strike zone. In 39.1 innings for the Rainiers, Harris has walked just 11 batters.

Keeping the ball in the zone is only one of the ways Jeff Harris thinks he can contribute to the Rainiers' success this year.

"I can go out there and throw strikes," said Harris. "One of my bigger assets is that I take whatever role they put me in. I like to relieve and start. I usually go out there and throw strikes, and I'm versatile."

His versatility extends to the practice field as well, where Rainiers' pitching coach Rafael Chaves is working with Harris to become even more effective.

"I'm working on changing arm angles a little bit," says Harris. "Staying on top of the ball and being able to drop down, too, at the same time. I'm working on a sinker this year. I kind of got away from it for a couple of years, and this year I started throwing it again."

And what are the goals the California native has for the season?

"To win a championship," Harris says instantly. "The ultimate goal is to get to the big leagues. But when I started there in San Antonio my goal was to win a championship there, and they moved me here and my goal is still to be on a championship team."

No matter what team he plays for, or what role you put him in, Jeff Harris plays like a champion. His experience in the independent leagues taught him resiliency and flexibility. These tools should keep Harris in baseball – in one role or another.

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