HOUSTON — With football season’s arrival this month, it’s no surprise that Houston Astros pitcher Will Harris was playing a college football video game against teammate George Springer before a recent game.
After all, Harris is a Slidell native and was a key fixture for 2003-06 LSU’s baseball teams at the old Alex Box Stadium, right across the street from Tiger Stadium. The reliever still owns a house in University Club, which he uses as an offseason home partly to attend LSU football games each fall.
There’s only one thing off here: Harris was playing with … Alabama?
“It’s the best team in the game. LSU isn’t rated that well,” Harris said. “I have to give myself a chance to win.”
Harris has certainly bolstered Houston’s winning odds this season, becoming a borderline All-Star while anchoring a revitalized bullpen for a team right in the playoff hunt.
The Astros, losers of 100-plus games each season from 2011-13, have stumbled of late but are still in the mix for an improbable postseason return.
“It’s been great, and playing for the closest team to my home state means a lot, plus the kind of season we’re having,” he said. “I have a lot of family and friends that can watch games, come out to Houston and spend time. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
His play has reflected it. As a rocky September nears its end, Harris had a 1.88 ERA, serving as the go-to seventh-inning arm for a relief staff that has been among the game’s best despite some rocky innings in September. He earned his second save Saturday in a 9-7 win over the Texas Rangers.
Many times this year, Harris has pitched in a high-leverage role during tight games, with the outcome usually very much in doubt.
“He seems to come up big in opportune times, with me not giving him much wiggle room,” manager A.J. Hinch said.
Harris is far from the only LSU player in the majors these days, but his ascension and background does differ vastly from, say, Phillies rookie Aaron Nola.
A pair of arm surgeries in the minors sidetracked Harris, who played under former LSU coach Smoke Laval. By the time Harris reached the majors with Colorado in 2012, he was nearly 28 and six years removed from LSU. That’s not unheard of, but it does defy the trend among recent Tigers standouts.
Former Tigers like Nola, Kevin Gausman, Louis Coleman, DJ LeMahieu and Nick Rumbelow all reached the majors within three years of being drafted.
“The game’s changed; guys can get to the big leagues like that,” Harris said, snapping his fingers. “I had a few arm surgeries that postponed me — missed three years — so that was a big bump in the road.”
He was solid if unspectacular in stints with the Diamondbacks and Rockies from 2012-14. The righty compiled a 3.42 ERA with 88 strikeouts to 24 walks over two seasons in Arizona.
He wasn’t a highly coveted relief option this offseason, though Houston quickly nabbed him off waivers last November.
“I called my wife after I found out Houston claimed me,” Harris said. “Before I told her, I asked, ‘Which team would you want me to play for the most?’ And her answer was, ‘I’d say the Astros.’ I said, ‘I’ve got some good news then.’ ”
The reason Houston so eagerly signed him? A fastball that cuts almost imperceptibly to hitters near the plate and a curveball that spins many times more than the league average. Those nonstatistical indicators sold the Astros, a heavily analytics influenced organization that has worked similarly surprising career rejuvenation projects with pitchers like Collin McHugh.
But it’s one thing to like a pitcher’s stuff and another thing to use it well. In Harris’ case, his mindset on the mound has fit well with the club’s approach to pitch-calling.
“What stands out,” catcher Jason Castro said, “is his aggressiveness. When he comes in the game, he’s on the attack. He’s not scared to challenge with that fastball.”
Harris added, “Like everything, experience has definitely helped me figure things out.”
That experience has included nine teams spanning his minor and major league days, but he prefers to stick close to home. Home in this case for Harris is still very much at LSU.
“I’m there a lot in the winter,” Harris said of Baton Rouge. “Anthony Ranaudo and I have been throwing partners with Ryan Verdugo. The LSU community is real tight. … We all hang out as much as possible.”
The Slidell High product is keenly aware of his and his teammates’ places in LSU baseball history. He recognizes that the Laval years aren’t looked back on as fondly around the program, and he said he feels like he’s one of many success stories to remember from that era.
“Without a doubt, I feel that way,” he said. “We had some great ballplayers during my four years and Smoke’s five. He was a very positive influence on my career. But people get fired, get hired all the time. It’s just kind of sad that those teams seem a bit forgotten.”
Harris is adding a memorable chapter to his career in 2015, one that has him in the playoff hunt for the first time. That it’s come with his best season to date is a healthy bonus, especially come contract time this offseason, though he prefers to stay in Houston.
“Relievers break through at different stages of their career, and this has been that season for him,” Hinch said. “Our bullpen doesn’t function the same without Will.”
But what about those LSU football games for his Tigers — forget the Tide; he’s all purple and gold outside of video games — with three upcoming games in October?
“I’ll be very happy to miss those,” he said, “if it means we have some big games of our own.”