Michael Harris II hits another homer in win, and Braves know he’s something special

CHICAGO — Michael Harris II didn’t play college baseball, much less compete for a powerhouse program that drew big crowds and won a College World Series, as Dansby Swanson did at Vanderbilt. Harris played just 43 minor-league games above Single A before the Braves summoned him to the majors three weeks ago.

And, oh yes, the former third-round draft pick is the youngest player in the majors, having turned 21 in March, six days after Tampa Bay star Wander Franco.

All of which makes what Harris has done in his first 21 MLB games all the most stunning. He’s hit .321 with an .884 OPS, 10 extra-base hits, including three home runs, and 13 RBIs. All three homers were of the opposite-field variety and all were on the just-completed six-game trip, including a leadoff homer in the fifth inning of Sunday’s 6-0 win against the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

“Michael Harris just keeps learning and amazing me, with the power the other way, how he jumped that ball,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “It’s just very, very impressive how he’s handling himself. That kid’s something else, man.”

The Braves got a three-run homer from Travis d’Arnaud in the first inning, three doubles from Matt Olson (raising his MLB-leading total to 27) and 6 2/3 innings of three-hit ball from starter Ian Anderson to win in front of a packed house of 40,369. They avoided being swept at Wrigley, finished 4-2 on the trip and went 21-8 in a stretch of games against teams under .500 at the time the Braves played them, though the surging Phillies have since moved four games above .500.

The Braves are 15-2 in June and 5 1/2 games behind the NL East-leading Mets, whose 44-24 record is the best in the NL. The competition ramps up considerably this week as the Braves welcome the Giants to Atlanta for four games beginning Monday, followed by Freddie Freeman and the Dodgers in a weekend series.

“I wish we could have won the (Cubs) series, but we’re doing pretty good this month,” Harris said. “So only having two losses right now (in June), we still feel good. Get to go home on a win and be in front of our fans and try to win more. Those are definitely tough teams that we have coming up. Just do what we’ve been doing, attacking the baseball, doing the right things. Just playing good situational baseball and trying to get dubs.”

Anderson, noting the competition and weather forecast—it’s supposed to reach 100 degrees in Atlanta by mid-week—said, “It’s gonna be fun. Obviously, these next two series are going to be big. And this was a good road trip. We lost the first two here, so that was a big emphasis to try to get it done today, to kind of put a cap on what was a good trip.

“Now we get to go home and hopefully we’re as hot as the weather there. It’s gonna be hot.”

The Braves were 22-24 when Harris was called to the majors from Double-A Mississippi on May 28. In his fifth game with the team, the Braves began a 14-game winning streak that was tied for the second longest in modern franchise history .

During the streak, Harris hit .370 with nine extra-base hits, 10 RBIs, 10 runs scored and a 1.033 OPS, while playing exceptional center-field defense and starting every game. In fact, he’s played every inning of every game since he was called up.

“No moment seems too big for him,” said Braves third baseman Austin Riley, who had an RBI double Sunday in a three-run fifth inning that began with Harris’ homer. “That’s pretty impressive, considering his age and not being called up long ago. He’s been getting hits in big moments for us. That single the other day in Washington was huge.”

That was a two-run Harris single in the top of the fourth inning that gave the Braves a 3-0 lead in Wednesday’s sweep-completing win at DC

“I’ve been really impressed,” Riley said. “You knew the glove was elite, but what he’s doing offensively is impressive.”

Again, this is a young guy who didn’t play college ball, made it past the first two rounds of the draft and played less than a half-season above Single A before he joined the Braves. As defending World Series champions, the Braves have played in front of sellout crowds at home and many large crowds on the road.

Harris has seemed entirely unfazed by any of it.

“He’s been awesome for us,” Swanson said. “I think his immediate impact was to help defensively. I think offensively it was more of, like, just competitive at-bats was all we really needed. But he’s kind of exceeded all expectations thus far. He’s obviously a quiet kid and he just goes about his business. I’ve very much enjoyed having him around.

“He’s the kind of kid you can give a hard time to, get him to laugh and smile. But yeah, he’s obviously created such a big boost for us. I don’t think it’s an accident that we’ve started to play really well with him. He extends our lineup, he obviously helps our defense, and he just kind of goes about his business, which is always nice to have.”

Swanson, known as a “clutch” performer from his days at Vanderbilt right up through last year’s World Series, hasn’t been as surprised as some others by how calm Harris has appeared to be on the big stage.

“He’s obviously got that competitive drive in him,” Swanson said. “I feel like he’s always calm in general. You saw how he handled himself (the past two years) in spring training. Look, we all know spring training is spring training, but it’s still being around big-league players and facing big-league arms. And he always held his own.

“He’s a kid that’s always looking to get better and figure things out. And he’s obviously got his own, like, little swagger to him too. A combo of a bunch of those things obviously leads to good results.”

Swanson added, “He’s been good for us in RBI situations. I feel like he’s always putting the ball in play when he needs to, or moving guys (over). The beauty is, he’s still learning so much of the game. And like I said, I think he’s only going to continue to get better as time goes along. I’m excited to see it unfold.”

Any hopes the Cubs and their loud, sellout crowd had of completing an improbable sweep of the Braves pretty much ended in the fifth inning Sunday after Harris began a flurry of four extra-base hits in a span of five batters against soft-tossing starter Kyle Hendricks.

“I feel more comfortable, and I’m putting together better at-bats,” Harris said. “Just hitting the ball hard now and going out there trying to have fun and win games for the team.”

Harris said Hendricks threw even slower than the scouting report indicated — the veteran topped out at 87.5 mph Sunday — and said he was more prepared in his second at-bat against him, after striking out in the second inning.

The left-handed-hitting Harris homered on a 1-0 fastball over the middle, lining it to left field. Each of his homers has been to left or left-center, including two in back-to-back games on June 13-14 at Washington. Harris hits another fly ball to the left-field warning track Sunday.

“That’s been pretty much my approach the whole time in pro ball,” Harris said. “Even when I was younger I’d always go the other way, so I feel like it’s something I’ve done my whole life, kind of a natural to me.”

When a reporter asked after Sunday’s game if he was ever going to pull a homer, Harris smiled and said, “I tried today, and you see where it went. I just got jammed on that one. I’ll eventually pull some. But my thought is to go the other way.”

Even if he was jammed, the ninth-inning fly out on a ball pulled to right-center might’ve been a homer if the wind wasn’t blowing in from that side of the field Sunday. An indication of his strength—he could get jammed and likely still hit one out.

Something else that makes what Harris has done even more notable: Just a few days after being called up, he made a swing adjustment at the behest of Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, who had watched Harris go 1-for-9 in his first three games and knew he was hindered by how high he held his hands in his batting stance.

Harris could get away with that in the minors with his considerable talent and athleticism, but Seitzer believed it would hold him back at the big-league level, and didn’t want to wait long and see Harris struggle if he could avoid it. Still, to make such a change in one’s first week in the majors, and get such immediate results, is unusual.

“He was up high (with his hands), and then in the game, he’d get higher, and he’d twist and turn and wrap (the bat behind him), and then get real steep to the ball,” Seitzer said. “I mean, he had no luck.”

Harris, by all accounts extremely coachable and eager to learn, made the adjustment during his first road series at Arizona. He dropped his hands low, the way Seitzer remembered had worked so well for Eric Davis, a contemporary of Seitzer’s from his playing days.

Beginning with the second game at Arizona, the fourth of his career, Harris has hit .348 with nine extra-base hits and 13 RBIs in 18 games.

“It’ll never be like a quick fix,” Harris said, though he’s made it look easy. “It takes time in the cage and BP and stuff, to actually translate to the game. I feel like it takes maybe a week or two, sometimes maybe longer.”

He’s struck out more than once in only two of his 21 games, and just twice in each of those two. Considering his tendency to chase pitches out of the strike zone in the minor leagues was one thing that Braves officials wanted to keep an eye on when he was called up, that’s yet another area where he’s surpassed expectations.

But three opposite-field homers in a six-game trip, for the youngest player in the major leagues …

“Three backside home runs,” Anderson said, smiling. “It’s fun to have him out there. He plays hard. We all love him.”

(Photo: Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press)

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