The day that Matt Harrison at times thought might never come will arrive Sunday at Safeco Field.
The left-hander, a former All-Star and Opening Day starter for the Texas Rangers, is expected to be activated from the disabled list for the first time in more than a year and start the series finale against Seattle.
Harrison has logged nearly 400 days since he last took a big-league mound because of a disk in his lower back that herniated two separate times, each time requiring surgery.
But he has survived the operations, another in September on his right shoulder for thoracic outlet syndrome, and an early-spring back scare to rejoin a Rangers rotation that he headed in 2012.
Now he faces a few new challenges, such as harnessing the adrenaline that will be pumping through him in the first inning and trying to remain healthy for the next five months.
“I’m ready. I’m really ready,” Harrison said Saturday. “It was a long road back. There were setbacks. I’ve gone through a lot of pain with the surgeries, but just getting back to this day is what motivated me. I’m ready to take the next step.
“Leading up to the game, there will be a little more emotion. Once I get settled in, it’ll be like another game, and I’ll have to go out there and compete.”
Harrison logged five rehab starts for Double A Frisco, one of which came in an exhibition game and two of which were affected by rain. But he turned in a gem in his finale April 19, allowing only three hits in eight scoreless innings, and after two bullpen sessions last week in Oakland, pitching coach Mike Maddux was convinced that Harrison was ready.
Harrison is at his best when he is sinking his fastball and getting swings and misses with his changeup. That was the formula that helped him win 18 games in 2012 and earn the start in the 2013 season opener.
But he made only two starts, both losses, before hitting the disabled list with a back issue that started late in spring camp.
At times, the numbness in his left foot would cause him to lose his balance during his delivery and limited how much he could push off as he went toward home. The pain in his back kept him from being able to finish off his follow-through, thus causing his pitches to be elevated and easy targets for opposing bats.
Dr. Drew Dossett operated on Harrison on April 23, and performed another operation May 1 after the disk herniated again. Only 10 percent of patients who have a herniated disk suffer a second herniation.
Harrison was back pitching on a rehab assignment July 31, but he had to be shut down in August after feeling numbness in his hand. The back wasn’t as strong as he and the training staff thought, and he was overcompensating with his arm.
That’s when frustration and doubt about the rest of his career set in. He had just signed a five-year, $55 million extension in the off-season.
“At that point, I honestly didn’t know if I’d make it back,” Harrison said. “I’d just signed a long-term extension here. I wanted to prove that I was worth the money they were paying me.”
Now, though, he says that he’s as healthy as he was before emerging as a solid rotation piece in 2011. He doesn’t lift weights anymore, and he keeps his running to a minimum. He hasn’t swung a golf club since he was injured, and the Rangers will do all they can to keep him from batting in interleague road games this season.
But Harrison is back, he and the Rangers believe, and that should be a boon for a pitching staff that has dealt with more than its fair share of injuries this year.
“I’m happy to have Harry back,” manager Ron Washington said. “He’s in a really good frame of mind. He’s ready to go. He’s just got to control his emotions.”