Sunday, September 19, 1999

Harnisch shoulders Reds' load

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        PITTSBURGH — The Reds got their grip back on September on Saturday, and they knew it. Ballplayers can talk all they want about maintaining an even keel, but this month, you can forget all that.

        Less than 24 hours after losing listlessly — and retreating to a locker room suitable for embalming — the Reds rallied to win Saturday. The clubhouse was Animal House.

        “Put the Fordham game on!” shouted Pete Harnisch. Half the team sat at dining tables, staring at the Penn State-Miami football game on TV, yelling like they had money on it. Harnisch, Fordham '88, wondered why his Rams weren't on.

        He pitches today. Harnisch throws in the most important game of the year — they're all the most important now, every last one — and you have to like his chances. The Purple Heart Kid has been pitching with a tweaked shoulder only since the first week of June. He said if the Reds weren't in a pennant race, he “probably” would have had surgery two months ago. Instead, he's 9-4 since he first felt the sting on June 6.

        “Bulldogged his way through it,” was how Don Gullett put it.

Gullett's been there
        Dr. Pitching would know. There's some history there. During the '75 World Series, Sparky Anderson said “Don Gullett is going to the Hall of Fame.” Four years later, Gullett was going home to farm tobacco. By age 24, Gullett had already won 80 big-league games. By age 27, he'd blown his rotator cuff. His shoulder had been sore for years.

        “We watch him pretty closely,” Gullett said of Harnisch. “We know he can't hurt his arm by pitching. If he could, we wouldn't send him out there. No way we'd blow his arm out” over a pennant race.

        They all hurt some in September. Pitchers walk around with ice bags the size of fire hydrants taped to their arms. Pokey Reese has been playing through back spasms. But Harnisch is different.

        “There's not a lot of pain the last six or seven starts,” he said. “But nah, it's not quite right. It feels good for awhile, then kind of gives out at different times in a game.”

        The Reds have Harnisch on a loose pitch count. One hundred throws, give or take. Harnisch is stubborn, and not always likely to be honest about his condition.

        “When it goes, it goes quickly,” he said. “I gave up five quick ones in Montreal (an 8-6 loss three weeks ago) because they started getting the bat head around on the fastball.”

Mirrors on the mound
        It's a pitching staff of castoffs, run seemingly by hunch. It's Ron Villone, great one night, ragged the next, and Steve Parris, pitching on courage and control. When the Reds had to have him, Parris pitched the game of his year Saturday, throwing strikes and letting his team play defense.

        Denny Neagle has returned to health and form. Juan Guzman has been worth the expense. But Harnisch is the guy they must have. He is the staff ace and leader. If Harnisch weren't pitching (and winning) with a battered shoulder, who'd be there to set the example?

        “He gives us an honest effort every time,” Gullett says.

        The pain affects Harnisch's velocity most. When it gets to be too much, usually by the sixth or seventh inning, he'll change his motion to limit the hurt.

        When that happens, Harnisch gets hit, or removed. “It's a fine line” between being a hero and a loser (and) I'm not sure I have a grasp on it yet.”

        Truthfully, you're not sure you want him to have it. A pennant race is no time for caution. Most Septembers are won with talent; a few are claimed on guts. The Reds don't have Houston's talent, or New York's. They just have Harnisch.

        It is not a long season anymore. It's pitch-to-pitch.

        “We'll give (Harnisch) the ball” today, Don Gullett said, “and see how long he can go with it.”

        Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.