Michael Harris II has been the big difference maker in the Atlanta Braves turn-around since a slow start this season.

The Atlanta Braves pushed the call-up button on May 28, taking Michael Harris II all the way from the Class AA Mississippi Braves to Atlanta, making Harris, just turned 21, the youngest player in Major League Baseball.

The move – skipping Class AAA altogether – raised some eyebrows. There was his age, plus the fact Harris had played only 43 games above the Class A level. Were the Braves rushing him, panicking because the defending world champions were off to a disappointing 22-24 start?

Rick Cleveland

Those of us who had watched Harris at Trustmark Park knew better. He was ready. As a baseball player, he was 21 going on 28. Bruce Crabbe, the M-Braves manager, gushed more about Harris’ maturity than he did the kid’s obvious talent. Crabbe talked about Harris’ “rare professionalism at such a young age.”

“He’s so smart,” Crabbe said. “He just gets it.”

Back in April, I watched Harris at practice one afternoon, hours before a night game. Batting left-handed, he sprayed line drives all over Trustmark Park. He blasted a couple out of the park, well over 400 feet to left center field. He stepped across the plate to the right-handed batter’s box and hit one well over the left field wall. (No, he is not a switch-hitter, but he has been in the past. He has also been a pitcher. In fact, many MLB ball clubs valued him higher as a pitcher than an everyday player.)

After that practice, I asked Harris if he had a timetable for reaching Atlanta. He shook his head. “Whenever they need me, I plan to be ready,” he said.

He got the call 36 days later.

READ MORE: Michael Harris II has Mississippi roots

Now then, fast forward to Thursday night at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. The game was tied at 2 when Harris stepped to the plate with two outs in the fifth inning. He fell behind – one-ball, two strikes in the count – before fouling off several pitches. On the 10th pitch of the at-bat, he turned on fastball, up and in, and launched a two-run home run well over the wall in right centerfield.

In the bottom of the same inning, Harris did something even more impressive – a lot more impressive. The Nationals put runners at first and second with consecutive singles, bringing Juan Soto to the plate. Soto smacked a line drive single, which the left-handed Harris fielded on one hop, moving to his right. Then, without stopping to set his feet, Harris fired a strike to the plate. Luis Garcia, the Nationals’ speedy leadoff hitter, was out, and he was also stunned. His expression, clearly shown on TV, said this: “How in the world did that happen?”

Brian Snitker, the Braves manager, said more.

“Unbelievable play. My God,” Snitker said. “It was a game-changer obviously, but I didn’t think he had any chance, When he uncorked that thing, I was like, ‘Oh my Lord.’ It’s not like Garcia can’t run either.”

Announcers later told us the throw was measured at 94 mph. My God, indeed.

Now then, let’s take a look at what the Braves have done since Harris entered the lineup on May 28 when they were 22-24. They have won 32 games, lost only 13. They have reduced a 7.5-game New York Mets lead in the standings down to 2.5. They have done all this despite losing second baseman Ozzie Albies to injury and despite All-Star right fielder Ronald Acuna’s prolonged slump.

Harris has been the catalyst. Batting mostly at No. 9 in the order, he has scored 29 runs and driven in 26 more in 45 games. He is hitting .284 with eight home runs and stolen a base seven times (in seven attempts).

No telling how many runs he has saved in centerfield. He reminds this writer of a young Willie Mays, running down seemingly impossible-to-catch balls and turning doubles and triples into outs. His arm is as accurate as it is strong. He has turned the Braves’ outfield defense from mediocre to an obvious strength. Said Snitker of Harris, “When he’s out there in the grass, he’s a difference maker.”

Crazy as it sounds, had Harris been with the Braves the entire season, he surely would be playing in next week’s Major League All-Star Game. He has been that good. No, he’s been that sensational.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.