Giants’ Kyle Harrison brushes back Bryce Harper twice as benches clear in Phillies’ victory

SAN FRANCISCO — Kyle Harrison does not brush back left-handed hitters by design.

He is not a 22-year-old headhunter. He is not waging a territorial war of inches on the inner half of the plate. When he takes the mound, his mind is on efficiency, not intimidation. They cannot be purpose pitches when they do not happen on purpose.

But Harrison is also a rookie left-hander who is finding his way on the big league stage. The pitch mix he uses now might bear little to no resemblance to the repertoire he’ll throw in a season or three. He is developing in the major leagues because the Giants know that his fastball, thrown with uncommon ride from a deceptively low arm slot, is a pitch that works often enough against the best hitters in the world. And when his mechanics get out of whack, when his arm drags a bit too far behind his body or when he feels a bit fatigued, the misses tend to cluster in the same place.

Arm side. And up.

Which happens to be chin music to left-handed hitters.

Entering his start Wednesday afternoon at 24 Willie Mays Plaza, Harrison had hit five of the 255 batters he’d faced this year and prompted several more rapid recoils from left-handed opponents. Those pitches might have had the ancillary benefit of backing those hitters off the plate, but they were not the locations he desired. They also were not transgressions that, to Harrison’s mind, required apology. You accept certain occupational hazards when you step in a major league batter’s box. Harrison shrugged when asked about his arm-side misses. “It’s part of the game” is the new “just taking it one day at a time.”

But the nature of his errata was bound to create a flashpoint moment sooner or later. That charged moment arrived in the fourth inning Wednesday as the Giants were seeking to complete a three-game sweep. The Philadelphia Phillies had lost three consecutive games for the first time all season and their emotive star, Bryce Harper, was not having a good road trip. He was so furious after his strikeout in the first inning that he descended the dugout stairs and gave the bat rack six whacks with the handle end, which was more contact than he managed in his next at-bat. He struck out again in the third.

Beyond any personal frustration Harper might have felt in the moment, there was his history. He was hit in the face by a fastball from the St. Louis Cardinals’ Genesis Cabrera in 2021. He fractured a thumb when hit by a pitch in 2022. Whatever uniform he has worn in his baseball life, he has been the hitter that opponents talk about in pregame meetings. Don’t let this guy beat you. Pitch him tougher than anyone else. Often times those instructions have included backing him off the plate, to the risk of his personal health.

There was a supernatural element at play Wednesday, too: it was the seventh anniversary of the day when Harper charged the mound in San Francisco, throwing his helmet with malicious intent after right-hander Hunter Strickland had exacted petty revenge from a three-year-old beef while issuing a fastball to the hip.

There were no beefs this time. But Harper appeared on edge when he batted with two on and two out in the fourth and the Phillies ahead 1-0.

Harrison got ahead quickly on a fastball followed by a low changeup that drew a swing. When Harper fouled off a slurve away, Harrison had him set up for the fastball up and in. The errant pitch was very much both. After it backed Harper off the plate, he squared his shoulders to the mound and yelled at the young pitcher. Harrison appeared to tell him to get back in the box. The next pitch was higher and tighter and Harper recoiled with such alacrity that his helmet flew off.

Harper stood motionless as both benches and bullpens emptied. Someone on the Phillies side pushed Giants hitting coach Pat Burrell. Otherwise, it amounted to a lot of milling about. Giants third base coach Matt Williams, who managed Harper with the Washington Nationals, played peacemaker along with third baseman Matt Chapman and catcher Curt Casali. Crew chief James Hoye warned both dugouts. The Giants issued a replay challenge that led to an overturned call when video evidence clearly showed that the pitch struck the knob of Harper’s bat.

The at-bat continued. And Harrison returned to those slurves away while getting Harper to ground out.

It was not Harrison’s best outing. He allowed hitters back into counts and gave up 12 hits in five innings and took the loss as the Phillies salvaged a game in the series with a 6-1 victory. But Harrison also gained a measure of respect from teammates who watched him hold his ground when a superstar glared back at him.

“When Bryce Harper gets pissed off and yells at you, I’ve got to imagine for a young guy that’s pretty terrifying,” Chapman said. “I was just trying to calm him down, make sure he’s in a good head space. Obviously he’s not trying to do that. It’s just the way it goes sometimes. I’m glad it didn’t turn into anything that didn’t need to happen.”

Casali immediately turned toward Harper after the second brushback to ask if he was OK and to let him know that the pitch wasn’t intentional. Then Casali’s next thoughts went to making sure his young pitcher, who had never been charged by an angry hitter and had never thrown a pitch after warnings had been issued, had his wits about him.

“He calmed down very nicely,” Casali said. “We both knew that we weren’t gonna throw another fastball right away. Just throw a slider and get back into the count, see where his head is. But he made three good pitches right away and got him out. It’s not easy to do, especially when your heart rate gets going. I think it was impressive that he was able to come back the way he did. That’s what pros do and he’s a pro.”

He is a young pro with a long memory. Harrison hadn’t forgotten that Harper took him deep in his major league debut last season. The left-hander acknowledged that he felt extra motivated to face Harper as a result.

“A hundred percent,” Harrison said. “You always look back on those moments. This guy welcomed me to the leagues. So you want to get him on any given day now.”

And if that involved going inside again?

“Why not?” Harrison said. “We’re trying to get him out and that’s a spot where I thought I would get him. … Maybe I missed a little in, but I don’t know. I’m trying to get him out, man. He’s a good player so you gotta put it in spots where he might not be happy.

“I’m never going to back down from anyone. The second you do that is when they’re going to get you.”

Unlike the situation seven years ago with Strickland, who had barked at Harper as he rounded the bases after hitting a home run in the 2014 postseason, there was no personal animus in the backstory between pitcher and hitter. That plunking resulted in a melee on the field and a head-knocking collision between Giants pitcher Jeff Samardzija, whose fist was bearing down on Harper’s jaw, and Giants first baseman Michael Morse, who was attempting to make peace between his current and former teammates, that was so violent that it ended Morse’s career. Strickland’s selfishness that day made him a pariah in two clubhouses.

Harper made it clear in his postgame comments Wednesday that he didn’t view Harrison as throwing with intent to injure or settle a score.

“I just don’t want to get hit in the face again,” Harper said. “That’s about it. Just don’t want to get hit in the face. You get hit in the face, man, it’s not fun. It’s bad. He didn’t mean to. Just, sinkers in. I wasn’t really that mad. Just … throw the ball over the plate.”

The Giants were quick to de-escalate in part because they understood Harper’s frustration, Casali said.

“It’s a part of the game that can be a little bit dangerous at times and as long as the intent is not there I don’t have a problem with it (as a hitter),” Casali said. “But I can understand you know, two in a row. It’s scary. Bryce has a history of being hit in the face. I think he reacted in a way that made sense, but afterwards he was pretty calm. I think he realized we’re not trying to go there. It’s not a pitch that we do on purpose by any means.

“I think that part of the game is for the most part long gone. At the same time, we can do better at hitting our spots.

“I know fans like brawls, but we don’t need those. We’re still in the game. We’re not trying to escalate anything. I’m glad it didn’t hit him. I understand both sides.”

The Giants have their own injuries to treat without combat wounds. Shortstop Marco Luciano tweaked his hamstring while running down the line in the first inning and exited for a pinch hitter in the third. The injury might have made an uncomfortable decision a lot easier for the Giants, who watched Luciano make another mental mistake at shortstop in the second inning when he didn’t hustle to get rid of a ground ball and speedy Phillies infielder Bryson Stott beat the throw for a single.

If Luciano is headed to the injured list, then the Giants are likely to have Nick Ahmed back by the time the rookie is eligible to return. As productive as Luciano’s at-bats have been, it’ll be a lot easier to justify sending him back for more seasoning at Triple-A Sacramento. The Giants still believe that Luciano has all the physical tools to be a serviceable shortstop. But the game is faster at this level and he hasn’t been able to make decisions that reflect the faster pace.

None of that has been a problem for Harrison. He still has a ton of refining to do. But he’s showing that he already knows how to compete and how to stand his ground.

“It wasn’t too hard for me,” he said, when asked about locking back in mentally after benches cleared. “I’m the type of guy who likes to play with emotions. I let that kind of fuel me.”

(Photo of Harrison: D. Ross Cameron / USA Today)

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