Walk-on Harris plays big for Dores
A regional title hung in the balance Monday night as Louisville loaded the bases with two outs in the ninth inning of a tie game.
Andrew Clark smoked a line drive toward left field that looked as though it would bring in the deciding runs. Instead, Vanderbilt shortstop Brian Harris made a leaping grab, preserving the tie and allowing his team to win the Louisville Regional with a run in the bottom of the 10th. Afterward, Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said his 5-foot-8 senior used every inch he had to catch that liner. His teammates, being baseball players, naturally gave him a hard time.
"They told me that was the highest I've ever gotten off the ground," Harris said. "Which is 2 inches."
OK, so Harris has never possessed the most imposing physical attributes. But the former walk-on and recruiting afterthought has turned into perhaps the most valuable cog for the Commodores, who play at Florida State this weekend in the super regionals.
"He's short; he's not blessed with outstanding speed; and he doesn't have a rocket arm across the infield," Corbin said. "But he does everything to help you win baseball games. The way he's developed here is one of the most impressive things I've ever seen."
Harris grew up down the road from Vanderbilt's campus and led his high school team to a Tennessee state championship. But college recruiters saw his paltry frame and passed. He received no scholarship offers from four-year colleges and resorted to calling local schools Lipscomb, Belmont and Samford to drum up interest.
Finally, Vanderbilt gave him a chance to walk on, which had been Harris' dream all along. His father, Robert, played at the school in the 1970s and was a prominent program supporter. Corbin said casual observers viewed Brian's presence on the team as merely a favor to his dad. Harris certainly didn't seem to measure up to the rest of that year's No. 1 recruiting class -- a group that included future first-rounders Pedro Alvarez, Ryan Flaherty and Casey Weathers.
"At first it was a little intimidating coming in with those guys," Harris said. "But I kind of had a feeling I could play. I thought it might take awhile, but I thought I could contribute."
After bulking up in the weight room during a redshirt year, he served mostly as a backup in 2007. When Alvarez got hurt in '08, Harris stepped in and ended up starting 31 games. That's when, he said, he began to feel as though he could compete at the SEC level.
His defense always stood out, and Corbin raves about his shortstop's quick hands, accurate arm and unbreakable concentration. Earlier in Monday's win over Louisville, for example, Harris barehanded a ball that had deflected off the pitcher and threw out a runner to stem a rally.
Last year, Harris' bat started to match his glove. He batted .299 and led the team in runs scored as the leadoff hitter, earning first-team All-SEC honors. This season, he's hitting .293 with a whopping .498 on-base percentage.
He'll do anything to get on base. On Monday, he was hit by his 36th pitch of the year, most by any player in the nation.
"It's something I've grown accustomed to," he said. "I feel much more comfortable when I'm standing close to the plate, and with that comes some hit-by-pitches. There have been countless times where the ball nicks me and the catcher still catches it, but I've never gone to first base without it actually hitting me."
While Harris has made a steady progression on the field throughout his career, it hasn't always been easy. His mother, Cay, died of cancer in September 2007. The grief lingers and blindsides him at unexpected times; Corbin said Harris was really struggling with his emotions even as this season began.
It helps that his younger brother, Andrew, is also on the team and provides support. And Corbin's wife, Maggie, has taken an active role in the Harrises' lives.
"Any time I need a female perspective on life, she's there for me," Harris said. "She's just been such an influence on me and my family.
"I probably wouldn't be here in this program if it weren't for my coaches and teammates and the support they've given me."
Harris thought about his mother as his team celebrated the regional title on Monday. He believes she'll be watching and cheering him on this weekend in Tallahassee.
Vanderbilt has never advanced to the College World Series. To get there, the Commodores will likely need more heroics from the guy with the 2-inch vertical.
Brian Bennett covers college sports for ESPN.com.
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