James Harris, the Wild Things’ sometimes outfielder and sometimes designated hitter, knows a little about making an instant impact. Perhaps it is something they teach at Technical High School in Oakland, Calif.
Harris, who also is the Wild Things’ leadoff hitter, started the bottom of the first inning Wednesday in Game 2 of Washington’s Frontier League semifinal series against the Florence Freedom with a long home run to left field. It jumped-started the Wild Things and sent them on their way to a 7-0 lead and 10-9 victory that evened the best-of-5 series at 1-1.
It also was the fourth time this season, and second in 11 days, that Harris has led off a game with a home run. He has become the Wild Things’ version of Rickey Henderson, who holds the major league record with 81 leadoff home runs. Henderson is a graduate of Technical High, which also happens to be Harris’ alma mater.
“I’m just trying to get a good pitch to hit and get us off to a good start,” Harris said. “It has worked out a few times.”
Henderson was a fourth-round draft pick out of Technical High in 1976, but Harris was the final pick of the first round in the 2011 draft by the Tampa Bay Rays. After playing parts of six seasons in the Tampa Bay and Oakland farm systems, and being slowed by a still undiagnosed medical problem, Harris was signed by the Wild Things in early July. It took Harris some time to adjust to Frontier League pitching but he became the impact hitter Washington desperately needed. He finished the regular season with a team-leading .299 batting average and 18 stolen bases in only half a season.
“It took some time to adjust to this league,” Harris said. “The pitchers here tend to pitch backward. A lot of guys like to use their offspeed stuff frequently and the velocity isn’t the same as what I was used to. So it did take some time to adjust.”
Game 3 of the playoff series is tonight (7:05) at UC Health Stadium in Florence, Ky. Game 4 is Saturday (6:05) with Game 5, if necessary, in Florence at 5:05 p.m. Sunday.
The Wild Things will likely need another good start from Harris along with pitcher Ethan Gibbons (8-6, 5.11), in Game 3. Florence will send Steve Hagen (8-5, 3.95) to the mound.
Gibbons should be comfortable pitching at UC Health Stadium because he spent the last two years as a reliever for Florence. He was released by the Freedom this spring and signed by Southern Illinois, for whom Gibbons pitched well enough that he made the West Division team for the Frontier League All-Star Game but was waived by Southern Illinois shortly thereafter. The Wild Things quickly claimed him off waivers and are glad they did.
“He was what we needed,” Washington manager Gregg Langbehn said. “We tried to fill the three spots in our rotation after Trevor Foss and Chase Cunningham but several arms didn’t work out. Gibbons really helped solidify the rotation.
“I love the way he pitches. He competes. I was really upset when I found out that he is 27 years old and won’t be playing for us next year because of the Frontier League’s age limit.”
Gibbons is 3-2 with a 2.97 ERA for Washington. His last outing was his best as he allowed only one run over seven impressive innings in an Aug. 30 win over Joliet. Gibbons struck out nine in that start and had a powerful fastball that hit 93 mph and was still reaching 92 mph after throwing 100 pitches.
Gibbons is excited about the opportunity to pitch against his former team.
“He’s eager to throw against Florence. He’s earned the right to be in the top three starting pitchers,” Langbehn said. “He will have to use his changeup and get late movement on his fastball because the gaps in that ballpark are much shorter than they are in our park. I hope he doesn’t get caught up in the excitement of pitching against his former team. I know he’s excited to be involved in a playoff game.”