Rangers’ Matt Harrison keeps level head for Opening Day start

03/29/2013 9:18 PM

04/03/2013 2:02 PM

The first time Matt Harrison stopped and asked himself if that just happened came in the off-season, when the Texas Rangers first approached him about signing a long-term contract extension.

As strange as it sounds, the potential dollars weren’t necessarily the wow factor. He was bowled over by the fact that the team he’d had to scratch and claw to make actually wanted him to stay for a long haul.

He didn’t have to wait too long to be stopped in his tracks again. That happened March 21, when he was named the Rangers’ starting pitcher for Opening Day. He expects to be humbled again Sunday before he takes the mound in the lid-lifter at Houston.

The past year — which includes 18 wins, an All-Star Game and a five-year, $55 million contract — has taken Harrison on quite a ride. But he remains grounded and seemingly unfazed by the weight of a skyrocketing career that only three years ago looked like it might flat-line.

“It’s been a lot at one time,” Harrison said Friday. “I’ve always been a guy who is under the radar. I always had to make the team in spring training. It’s a little weird to be in this situation. It’s hard for me to explain.

“For me, I expect it to happen. It’s what I work for and what you think about when you’re younger to get to the point where you’re financially stable and able to make a career out of it. That’s what the goal is.”

Harrison knows the odds aren’t in favor of drafted players making it to the majors, especially prep pitchers unearthed in rural North Carolina. Growing up, Harrison’s chores included working in the family garden, where his family plucked much of its food, and chopping wood.

The Harrisons rarely dined out, and when they did, it was to a regional fried-chicken restaurant. One of the things Harrison dislikes most about the major leagues is having to eat out for dinner every night on the road.

Even after scoring his contract in January, Harrison didn’t go crazy. He and his wife purchased a house in the Metroplex, but not before they negotiated the price down and got the owner to chip in a handsome sum for improvements.

“I was like that growing up,” he said. “Most of the time, I get what I need, not what I want.”

That levelheadedness should prevail Sunday at Minute Maid Park against the Houston Astros, a team that will be lucky not to lose 100 games this season. But Harrison already has started delving into the Astros’ lineup, in large part because he doesn’t know who many of them are.

Expect Harrison to have the book on the young Houston hitters committed to memory by the team he unwinds for the first time in 2013.

“You can never take a team lightly,” he said. “You do that — that’s when you get burned.”

He won’t take the honor of starting the opener lightly, either. He will be the Rangers’ fifth different Opening Day starter in the past five years and knows that another chance to start the first game might not come again.

Harrison might allow himself to soak in the atmosphere and once-a-year ballpark doings until it’s time for him to go to work.

“Once I get on the mound, it’s about helping us get a win,” he said.

His teammates and coaches see a work ethic that has resulted in 32 wins the past two seasons after being banished to the bullpen and left off the postseason roster in 2010. The 14 wins he posted in 2011 rated as a shocker after he had to win a job in spring training.

There was also a mental turnaround. Harrison turned his 2010 frustrations into books geared to positive thinking and trusting his abilities, and he stopped allowing himself to get rattled by mistakes he made earlier in a game.

Manager Ron Washington said that Harrison has become more vocal and shares his thoughts more than previously. The result is a confident pitcher who has improved each of the past two seasons.

And he is good enough to be the Rangers’ starting pitcher Sunday in their first game of 2013.

“He was our most consistent guy last year,” Washington said. “He won us 18 games. We thought it was fitting that he get this opportunity.”

Said Harrison: “It’s a great honor to get that opportunity. It’s something I’ve watched other people do. It’s something that may happen only once, so I’m going to enjoy it. It’s something I’m not going to take lightly.”

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