First things first: Matt Harrison is a ballplayer.
The question remains, though: Is he a hitter or a pitcher?
Harrison, who played his high school baseball at Nitro and played in college at Marshall and West Virginia State, showed he can handle both jobs in his first starting assignment Wednesday night for the West Virginia Power.
The 6-foot-4, 230-pound right-hander pitched the first three innings (and took the loss) in the Power’s 7-3 setback against the Gastonia Honey Hunters. He allowed three runs — only one was earned — and three hits while striking out two and walking none.
When Harrison’s pitching stint was over, he shifted to first base for the rest of the seven-inning game. Batting ninth in the order — Power manager Mark Minicozzi eschewed the designated hitter Wednesday with the intent to get Harrison some at-bats — Harrison went 1 for 3 with a booming triple to left-center in his first time up in the bottom of the second.
Harrison also showed some nifty glove work at first base, particularly on a grounder to his right that he turned into a 3-1 putout.
So in which direction will a professional baseball career head for the 23-year-old Harrison?
“I’m not sure,” Harrison said after Wednesday’s game. “I’ll keep working and see where it goes. You never know. Learn from what I do and keep going forward.”
What does his manager think?
“Long term, I think pitching is his best avenue in this league,” Minicozzi said. “This is a great opportunity for him. He brings a lot of versatility for a young guy.”
Most of Harrison’s baseball-playing life has been spent as a hard-hitting first baseman. As a junior at Nitro in 2014, he batted .439 with 30 RBIs, then followed that up as a senior in 2015 by hitting .420 with 10 home runs and 43 RBIs, earning first-team Class AAA All-State honors as the Wildcats advanced to the state championship game at Appalachian Power Park.
On the mound?
“I stopped pitching my sophomore year at Nitro,” Harrison said.
He signed with Marshall, strictly as a first baseman, and played in 14 games — five starts — as a freshman in 2017. In the spring of 2018, Harrison decided to transfer to West Virginia State.
It turned out to be a significant turning point and reintroduced Harrison to the mound.
“When I transferred to State, head coach Sean Loyd asked if I wanted to start pitching again,” Harrison said. “I said, ‘Sure.’”
Harrison pitched in just five games in his two seasons at State (2020 and ’21), but made a much more significant impact as a power-hitting first baseman. As a senior this past spring, he hit .340 with 13 home runs and 43 RBIs in 42 games with the Yellow Jackets.
With his college career over, Harrison wasn’t quite ready to hang up his spikes. He signed with the Trinidad (Colo.) Triggers of the independent Pecos League and continued his hot hitting there — a .343 average with 16 home runs and 42 RBIs in 44 games, playing mostly at first base but also getting some time in right field.
He also pitched in 16 games for Trinidad, all in relief, and flashed potential. He struck out 45 batters in 27 �/₃ innings, or about 15 per nine innings.
When the Pecos League season ended, Harrison was contacted by the Power and signed a contract with the independent Atlantic League team in late August.
It’s a big step up from the Pecos League. On a roster populated largely by former major-leaguers and players who reached the high minors of affiliated baseball, Harrison has played sparingly for the Power.
His first big chance came last Friday, when he allowed a run in 2 �/₃ relief innings against the Lexington Legends.
In the midst of a battle for a postseason berth, the Power is bringing Harrison along slowly. Wednesday’s game was a make-up date from a rained-out game from the first half of the season and did not count toward West Virginia’s second-half record. His next scheduled pitching start will be in a similar situation.
That’ll come at home Tuesday night in the first game of a doubleheader against the Long Island Ducks. Between games of that Sept. 28 twin bill, West Virginia will unveil the team’s new name. (Spoiler alert: Charleston Dirty Birds.)
In the meantime, Harrison will continue working as a bullpen catcher for the Power, a position for which he volunteered when the team’s regular man in that role, Alfonso Rada, left the club for a college coaching position.
“Whatever I can do to help the team, I’ll do it,” Harrison said.
That’s the same attitude Harrison takes on the pitcher-or-hitter question. Either way, he’s OK with it.
“It’s amazing to get a chance like this, a childhood dream,” he said Wednesday night. “I’ve been given this opportunity and I feel very blessed.”