Asmussen | Harris fits right in with experienced roster

 

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Call him "Gramps," "Pops" or the "World's Oldest Sophomore," it doesn't bother Josh Harris.

The Marine-turned-Illinois relief pitcher is having the time of his life.

"Like I've been telling people all season, I'm super happy I chose to come play here," Harris said.

The soon-to-be 26-year-old had other options after standout 2018 season at Kankakee Community College. UIC, Texas-Arlington, Miami (Ohio) and others showed interest.

Looks like he made a good call. Starting Friday in Oxford, Miss., Harris will be in the NCAA tournament.

"I love it all," Harris said. "Even if we didn't make the postseason, I really enjoyed my time here just because of the people I was surrounded with."

Being an older guy hasn't been a problem.

It helps that the roster includes 14 seniors.

"This team is pretty mature," Harris said.

Mostly.

"He had a birthday and we said 'It's his 35th,'" Illini pitcher Andy Fisher said. "We love that. He puts things in perspective with his Marine background. Baseball isn't all there is.

"He's a great left-handed reliever. He does a good job."

It took time for Harris to adjust to playing for a Division I school.

"I wouldn't say nervous," Harris said. "When you first get here, you start scrimmaging your own guys. As you can tell, this is a really good team. When you face your own guys, they know what you throw and they're kind of on you. You're like, 'Wow, these guys can hit.' As the season went on, I just realized we're just a really good team and I was able to perform against other teams."

Bumps in the road

It hasn't been a perfect year for Harris. He is 4-2 with a 4.60 ERA in 23 appearances. In 15 2 / 3 innings, he has 23 strikeouts (good) and 14 walks (not so good).

"When he's in the strike zone, the numbers show he doesn't get hit," Illinois pitching coach Drew Dickinson said. "I know he's new to college baseball, but he's older and been through stuff that we're hoping he can flip it around and be a guy for us coming in to get big left-handers out. That might be the difference between winning and losing a regional."

Pitching or on the bench, Harris has had a positive impact on the team.

"I think how he goes about his daily routine is what I think is a good example for the other guys," Dickinson said.

Harris struggled in his last game, allowing four walks and a run at Michigan State on May 18. He didn't pitch in the Big Ten tournament.

Harris can't wait to get back on the mound.

"I have no doubt that regionals will be different," Harris said.

Harris will work in short relief at Swayze Field.

Will he or won't he ...

Return to Illinois in 2020?

To be determined.

A lot depends on what happens in the next week or two.

Harris is hoping to get a call during MLB draft, scheduled for next Monday through Wednesday.

"If somebody drafts him or wants to sign him, he'll leave,' Dickinson said. "I'll be the first to tell him to leave. He's going to be 26 years old."

"I think he's going to get a shot to throw professionally because he's a lefty that throws 91 (mph)," Fisher said. "If he doesn't, I would encourage him to come back and finish up his degree."

If he doesn't get a shot at pro ball, Harris will return to his hometown Beecher for baseball this summer.

Technically, he has two more years of eligibility.

"Me, Drew and Dan (Hartleb), we're in the talks of it," Harris said. "We're playing it by ear. We'll see what happens. I love the game of baseball. If the opportunity presents itself, I could see myself playing another year. If not, I had fun this year."

Illinois coach Hartleb can picture Harris returning next season.

"Absolutely," Hartleb said. "We would love to have him back if it's the right situation for him personally. The thing to me is I want him to get his degree from Illinois. Period."

Long term, Harris wants to go into criminal justice. For eligibility purposes, he is studying communications at Illinois.

The school part is going well.

"Here's a guy who is 25 years old who in his mind is coming to college for one year to get signed and leave," Dickinson said. "He doesn't have to go to do school very well. And here he ended up with a 3.5 GPA. That's impressive. I know if I was that kid, I might not be playing school too hard. But he did and I think that's a testament to what kind of person he is."

"He's intelligent," Hartleb said. "I think he looks at things different. Sometimes, freshmen and young guys come in and it's like 'I'm away from home for the first time and we're going to explore.' Academics fall by the wayside. He's a little bit more seasoned than everybody else. He sees the full picture because he's been through a lot already. He knows the importance and where he wants to be."

Harris plans to take on-line courses this summer. If he "grinds it out," Harris will earn his degree next summer.

"Hopefully, I can get it done as soon as possible," Harris said.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.