College | Story | 5/1/2015

A bigger and better MSU Bear

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Missouri State

Week 12 College Baseball Weekend Preview

The day veteran Missouri State pitching coach Paul Evans welcomed Florissant, Mo., right-hander Jon Harris into the program’s fold back in the fall of 2012, he was immediately reminded of a couple of former MSU hurlers now plying their trade in the major leagues.

Evans, who has been on 33-year head coach Keith Guttin’s staff at Missouri State for 27 seasons, first thought of the left-hander Ross Detwiler, an eventual first-round pick who arrived in Springfield in 2004 measuring 6-foot-4 and 175-pounds. He was also reminded of the right-hander Brad Ziegler, a 20th-round pick who was roughly the same size when he got on campus in 2000.

When Harris arrived in Springfield right out of Hazelwood Central High School, Evans thought he was looking at the reincarnations of Detwiler and Ziegler. All he could do was shake his head and smile.

“This guy was a stick-figure coming in. He was 6 (foot)-3, 6-4 and he was 160 pounds when he got here – very thin-bodied,” Evans said during a recent telephone interview. “We’ve had a lot of those guys come through here with the same build. He’s 190 (pounds) now and still looks like a pencil. He’s no longer a twig but he’s now a pencil.”

Harris may still resemble a pencil in Evans’ eyes, but the 6-foot-4, 190-pounder is also armed with an eraser that has been wiping away opposing batters during Missouri State’s resurgent 2015 season. The 19th-ranked Bears are 31-10 overall and leading the Missouri Valley Conference with a 9-3 mark while waiting for Wichita State to come to town for an important league series this weekend. As Guttin’s Friday night ace, Harris (4-1, 2.43 ERA) will make his 11th start of the season tonight.

There was a bit of a scare early in the season. Harris suffered a fairly severe sprain to his left ankle – the foot the right-hander plants after delivery – in mid-March and missed a nonconference start against Kansas State. There was speculation at the time of the injury that he might miss as many as four or five weeks, but Harris immediately went to work with Jim Penkalski and the rest of MSU’s training staff and was back on the mound 12 days later.

“It was quite a compliment to both parties – our training staff and Jon – that they put so much effort and time into getting him back,” Evans said. “I think it says a lot for Jon’s character. … (He) was hell-bent on getting back and he just wanted to pitch for the team and keep us going in the right direction that we’ve been going in all spring.”

The injury was a wake-up call for Harris. Since it was to his landing foot he knew one wrong step here or there could reinjure the ankle and send him back to the sidelines for an even longer period of time. He worked diligently with the trainers for every one of those 12 days to get back into shape physically, but the next step was dealing with the mental aspect of the injury.

“Once I was back on the mound it was a matter of overcoming the fear and thinking, ‘Holy cow, I can reinjure my ankle again and be done for the rest of the year,’” Harris said during a separate telephone interview with PG. “It was at that point in time I (realized) that I needed to be the junior upperclassman that I am and bust my butt to get back to where I needed to be.”

He’s back with a vengeance, and he and junior left-hander Matt Hall (6-2, 2.95 ERA) from Lee’s Summit, Mo., have given Guttin and Evans a formidable one-two punch to start off a weekend. Junior left-hander Andy Cheray (3-3, 5.36) and sophomore lefty Jordan Knutson (3-1, 2.91) have complemented Harris and Hall in the starting rotation.

“With both of them we have two frontend guys that are pretty damn good,” Evans said of Harris and Hall. “Matt might not be in the same draft hemisphere as Jon but certainly he’s going to get drafted … and it’s nice to have both of them on Friday and Saturday.”

The bullpen has also been very good, led by redshirt sophomore right-hander Bryan Young from Kansas City, Mo. Young is 6-0 with nine saves, carries a 1.29 ERA and has 34 strikeouts in 28 innings. Senior right-hander Zach Merciez from Bartlesville, Okla., (3-2, 2.70) has logged 30 innings in 23 relief appearances.

The staff has a cumulative team ERA of 3.21 and has avoided major meltdowns. The Bears won nine of 15 nonconference games to start the season but have gone 22-4 since, including an 18-game stretch between March 15 and April 15 where they went 16-2.

“The guys have just kind of grown comfortable in their roles,” Evans said. “… We’re doing it with eight guys and that’s not uncommon once you get into a season and the way college baseball is set up; you get roles and guys start getting comfortable. … The bullpen’s been good; it’s been real helpful.”

THE 2012 PERFECT GAME PITCHER/CATCHER INDOOR SHOWCASE held at PG’s original headquarters on the southwest side of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, featured some terrific pitching talent from the national high school classes of 2012 (seniors), 2013 (juniors) and 2014 (sophomores).

The sophomores on display that February weekend included Cedar Rapids right-hander Mitch Keller, a second-round pick of Pittsburgh and now a Pirates farmhand, and right-hander Alex Lange from Lee’s Summit, Mo., now a dominant freshman starter at No. 1-ranked LSU.

The class of 2013 pitchers at the event included Florissant, Mo., right-hander Devin Williams, a second-round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers who is still in their system; Cedar Rapids left-hander AJ Puk, a sophomore at No. 8 Florida; Muscatine, Iowa, righty Derek Burkamper, a sophomore at Nebraska; and Little Rock, Ark., right-hander Lawson Vassar, a red-shirt freshman at Arkansas.

Harris was one of seven senior right-handed pitchers named to the Top Prospect List at the event. Among the others were Mitchell Brown from Rochester, Minn., a second-round pick who is now a Cleveland Indians farmhand; Matt Jones out of Omaha, a 25th-round pick of the L.A. Dodgers; Alec Rash from Adel, Iowa, a second-round pick of the Philadelphia Phillies who is a standout junior at Missouri; and Calvin Matthews from Bloomfield, Iowa, a junior weekend starter at No. 20 Iowa.

Harris also attended the 2010 PG P/C Indoor in Cedar Rapids, which was another star-studded affair.

“When I was at the (event) as a sophomore it was kind of an eye-opener,” he said. “My senior year I felt more like a lot of these guys are similar to me and we all have similar attributes, whether we’re left-handed or right-handed, taller or shorter. Just seeing all these guys go everywhere (with their baseball careers) you know (they’ve) worked hard, (they’ve) been doing this all their lives leading up this moment, and we’ve all contributed in some way.”

Another player named to the Top Prospect List at the 2012 PG P/C Indoor was catcher Matt Fultz from Lee’s Summit. Fultz spent his freshman year at Seminole (Okla.) State College before transferring to MSU last year and quickly became the Bears’ starting catcher. He hit .252 with three home runs and 26 RBI as a sophomore and is hitting .287 with three home runs, four doubles and nine RBI this season.

There were also five PG WWBA tournament competitions for Harris, the last three – the 2011 17u National Championship, 2011 Kernels Foundation Championship and the 2011 World Championship – playing with the St. Louis Pirates. His fastball velocity increased every year, from highs of 84 and 85 mph at his three 2010 events, to highs of 88 and 89 at his four appearances in 2011-12.

Harris was ranked 446th nationally after graduating from Hazelwood Central in 2012 and the Toronto Blue Jays selected him in the 33rd round of the MLB June Amateur Draft. That slot couldn’t offer nearly enough dollars and Harris loaded up and headed for Springfield.

His velocity didn’t change much between his senior year in high school and his freshman season at MSU with his fastball sitting 89-91 mph most of the time and occasionally hitting 92. It was at about the mid-point of his sophomore season that Evans started to notice a jump, with the ball sitting 90-92 and touching 93; more importantly, he was maintaining that velocity throughout an entire start. He’s shown another increase this year, with his fastball hitting 94 and 95 mph.

Evans credited the people and coaches that worked with Harris before he even got to Springfield for helping him develop a good feel for four pitches. “He has a plus changeup, he has a true slider – it does what a slider is supposed to do – and he has a good overhand curveball,” Evans said. “You don’t see a lot of guys in college at this level that are what I would call true four-pitch guys, and Jon is.”

JUNIOR RIGHT-HANDERS CODY SCHUMACHER AND CLAY MURPHY combined for a 13-2 record and 2.84 ERA in 158 innings while helping the Bears reach the NCAA Division I Tournament in 2012 but both went down with injuries early in the 2013 season (both returned as redshirt seniors in 2014). Out of necessity, Harris became the Bears’ Saturday starter as a fresh-faced freshman.

He called it a “shock” to everyone when Schumacher and Murphy went down but he felt he had shown during 2012 fall practices that he was capable of pitching at the collegiate level – he just had no idea what his role would be. He figured on making a couple of mid-week starts along the way or throwing a few innings in relief here and there, and at the time would have been happy with that.

“Coach Guttin came up to me and said, ‘There’s 60 innings out there this spring if you want them’ and I was just dumbfounded,” Harris said. “When they called on me after those guys got hurt to fill the Saturday role, I was like, ‘Dude, this is a huge step.’

“Coming in as a freshman if you do the work you’re going to get rewarded and I felt like I busted my butt in the fall to get to where I was,” he continued. “I was able to show in the fall what I could do and I was able to get a spot in the starting rotation with the Missouri State Bears.”

The Bears finished the 2013 season at 31-23 overall and 12-9 in the Mo Valley. The freshman Harris was outstanding, winning his first eight starts before finishing 8-2 with a 3.87 ERA, and 61 strikeouts and 31 walks in 76 2/3 innings.

“We’re not afraid to use the young guys if they’re ready, and I think Jon was ready coming out of high school; he had good stuff as it was,” Evans said.

Harris’ sophomore campaign was a bit of a roller-coaster, as was the Bears’ season in general. Harris finished 3-5 with a 3.16 ERA and struck out 66 and walked 28 in 79 2/3 innings, while MSU limped to a 26-31 overall record and a sixth-place finish in the MVC at 9-12.

“Last year is last year; we don’t talk about it,” Harris said. “At the beginning of the year Coach Guttin told us that last year is in the past and it’s time to focus on this year. … We’re hitting the ball well, we’re pitching well, we’re playing defense well, and when you’ve got all three aspects of the game working well then you start winning ballgames and it becomes a lot of fun for all of us.”

MSU’s pitching staff has performed well, to be sure, but it has had plenty of support; the Bears are hitting .293 as a team and averaging 6.5 runs per-game. The offense has been paced by freshman Jake Burger (.325, 3 HRs, 14 2Bs, 31 RBI); sophomore Blake Graham (.304, 4 HRs, 19 RBI) and junior Spencer Johnson (.303, 4 HRs, 31 RBI, 34 runs).

Junior Tate Matheny (.303, 4 HRs, 10 2Bs, 28 RBI, 28 runs, 10 SBs) – the son of St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny and a top draft prospect – is another key contributor, as is sophomore Justin Paulsen (.266, 6 HRs, 32 RBI).

After being drafted out of high school, Harris struggled with the decision as to whether he should sign or not simply because it is every 18-year-old’s dream to play professional baseball as soon as possible. He ultimately decided to head to Springfield with an ironclad plan of getting bigger, faster and stronger – three things on every athlete’s to-do list – and prove to scouts who regarded him as projectable out of high school that he was, in fact, very projectable.

Evans pointed out that Missouri State has a very good track record of developing pitchers – think Detwiler and Ziegler – and believes the knowledge of that entered Harris’ mind when he made the decision to attend college. Three years in college when a young man is between the ages of 18 and 20 can lead to a tremendous amount of development.

“It’s just absolutely phenomenal the things that I’ve been able to accomplish here,” Harris said. “Just becoming a better pitcher, becoming a better person in the community – it’s just great being a part of this legacy of all of the Missouri State Bears that have become professional athletes, and that may be me, as well.”

It’s no coincidence that as Harris has established himself as a Friday night ace at the NCAA D-I level his draft stock has climbed accordingly. Perfect Game now ranks him the No. 21 overall (college, juco, high school) prospect in the draft which should translate into a sure-fire first-rounder.

Evans can’t see into the future, but when first greeted Harris back in the fall of 2012 and made the comparisons with Detwiler and Ziegler, he had a good feeling those 160 pounds would turn into 190 and more likely than not, 210 or 215 one day.

He also saw a guy who has never had any arm injuries, a pitcher with good arm action and a sound delivery; one with just a nice, clean stroke. And now, Evans believes, the kid has become comfortable and more socially mature, and even while becoming a bigger and better MSU Bear, he can continue to dream on his body even more. The kid, Evans thinks, has a bright future.

The 2015 MLB June Amateur Draft awaits and Harris doesn’t deny that he thinks about it often, but only when he’s not honed-in on what lies ahead during the remainder of his collegiate career.

“Me and my parents talk about it a lot, and I talk with my advisor, too; it’s always in the back of my mind,” he said. “I realize that it’s coming up fast and it’s going to be a fun road to see where it all ends up. … You think about it more than you think you do, but it’s one of those mental blocks that I’ve got to put up until the time comes when they call my name.

“Until then, it’s Missouri State across my chest and it’s going to be there until they call my name and I sign that piece of paper that says I’m no longer with the Missouri State Bears.”

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