Harnisch lifts arms, spirits with Astros

Ken Rosenthal

May 06, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

It was the shortest National League game since 1984, a breathless one-hour, 45-minute sprint in which the opposing pitchers matched each other strike for strike.

Never mind that Pete Harnisch lost 1-0 to Pittsburgh's Zane Smith in his latest masterpiece Friday night. He rarely reached the finish line at all as an Oriole, much less in record time.

Who would believe that after five starts for Houston he'd be leading the NL with a 1.07 ERA? Who would believe his manager Art Howe saying, "There's no way he shouldn't be 5-0" even though he's only 1-1?

This is the same Harnisch whose average start turned into a three-hour epic last season, the same Harnisch who led the majors with 5.57 walks per nine innings in 1989.

Why, this is the same Harnisch who was working on a no-hitter in his first start for the Astros -- but lasted only five innings at Cincinnati after issuing eight walks and throwing 92 pitches.

"It was a Pete Harnisch special, a three-hour, 30-minute affair," the stocky righthander, 24, joked from Pittsburgh on Saturday. "I was hitting the Plexiglas behind the plate, launching it into the first row.

"[Commissioner] Fay Vincent was the guest. He threw out the first ball and sat in the third row. My pitches were landing in his beer."

That was April 11. Now, all of a sudden, Mr. Mechanical is Mr. Untouchable. He changed his delivery after the Orioles changed his scenery, and the difference in his results is almost incomprehensible.

He threw only 89 pitches in his two-hitter Friday, and it was hardly a fluke. His opponents are batting a league-low .140. The only reason his record isn't better is poor batting support -- nine runs in five starts.

"I'm just really relaxed," Harnisch said. "It's all mental. The coaching staff here is the greatest. They make me feel like I'm the man. From the very first day of spring training, they were really excited I was here.

"Mentally that turned me around. Nothing but positives come out of Art's mouth. He compliments me all the time. I get a lot of positive reinforcement around here. Maybe it's something I haven't had enough of in the past."

Harnisch, the Orioles' third pick in 1987, is careful not to criticize his former team, for whom he finished 11-11 with a 4.34 ERA last season. But of the three young players traded for Glenn Davis, he appears the most liberated.

Reliever Curt Schilling is doing well, with four saves in six tries and 14 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings. But outfielder Steve Finley is batting .228. He was in a 3-for-37 slump until going 5-for-8 his last two games.

That's the kind of inconsistency Harnisch showed with the Orioles, who feared his awkward mechanics would lead to arm trouble. Their belief still might prove correct, but Harnisch made an adjustment in his windup that is again enabling him to dominate hitters.

Orioles pitching coach Al Jackson advised Harnisch to keep his hands close to his body, the better to maintain his balance. Harnisch, though, wanted to raise his hands above his head. Astros pitching coach Bob Cluck agreed to let him try.

Harnisch said, "It sounds like a stupid thing," but that's the way he threw both at Fordham and in the minor leagues, where he struck out 266 in 263 2/3 innings. Now, at least for the time being, he's succeeding as a fastball pitcher in a fastball hitter's league.

"He did not feel good with his hands in front of his body," Cluck said. "Whoever suggested that, I could see where they were coming from. They tried to simplify his delivery. But when he put his hands back over his head, he forgot about his body and everything just flowed.

"He's mechanical. The first words I wrote in my notebook the first day I saw him was, 'He's mechanical.' It was like delivery by the numbers -- one, two, three, four.

"I'm into mechanics pretty deep. But there comes a time you overdo it. He was thinking about everything except the glove. I told him, 'Let me do my job, you do yours. I won't pitch, and you don't think about mechanics.' "

It helped that Howe named Harnisch one of his four starters the first time he addressed the team. Then again, Orioles manager Frank Robinson all but handed Harnisch a job the previous two springs, only to see him respond with back-to-back anxiety attacks, nearly pitching himself off the team.

Harnisch is calmer now, and for good reason -- he has a ful season of major-league experience behind him, and the expectations for the fifth-place Astros are minimal. "The test is if he has a bad stretch," Cluck said, "if he can hold together emotionally."

But that's a worry for another day.

Pete Harnisch is finishing games in under two hours.

Next, they'll enter a turtle in the Kentucky Derby.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.