Reserve reliever: Navy grad Lt. Mitch Harris heads to the minors

Navy Reserve Lt. Mitch Harris talks with State College Spikes catcher Adam Lewis during practice the week before the Spikes’ season-opener. (Photo by Robert Davidson)

Navy Reserve Lt. Mitch Harris has finished his duty on ships. Now, it’s time for the bus.

The 2008 Naval Academy graduate, a 13th-round draft pick of the St. Louis Cardinals, will begin his minor-league baseball career Monday as a relief pitcher with the State College (Pa.) Spikes, a short-season single-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals.

The 6-foot-4 right-hander will team up with players fresh out of college, eager to start their path to the majors in the New York-Penn League, riding the bus all over the Northeast, from Maryland to Vermont. At 28, he’s a few months older than his manager.

After securing a release from his active-duty commitment in January following two unsuccessful attempts, Harris is more than ready to begin this stage of his big-league pursuit.

“It’s all going to be brand new,” he said June 12, the day after arriving in State College from extended spring training work in Florida. “The ballpark, that’s my office, as awesome as that sounds.”

Harris remains attached to Navy Operational Support Center Miami, he said, adding that his command has been very helpful adjusting his schedule to allow for a busy summer.

The spring was no picnic, either — Harris spent months at the Cardinals’ training complex trying to work his arm back into pitching shape, and an early test didn’t go well.

On March 24, with “Anchors Aweigh” playing over the stadium loudspeaker, Harris entered a Grapefruit League game between the Cardinals and the New York Mets. He proceeded to record one out, give up two two-run homers and blow a St. Louis lead.

“Every time I go out, I expect to be perfect, but you can’t be, especially when you haven’t thrown in a couple of years,” Harris said. “It was definitely a challenge, but it was something I’ll always remember.”

State College manager Ollie Marmol, on hand for the game, saw Harris’ outing as a big-picture success.

“For Mitch to step onto that mound, every fan that was there for that game went crazy,” Marmol said. “Even though we have a culture of winning around there … when [the manager] came out and took the ball from him, everybody cheered for him. For me, I wasn’t so worried about the success on the field. … Overall, I think it was a positive experience.”

Three months since that appearance, Harris has upped his velocity to around 90 mph — almost what it was while pitching at the academy. He expects to get stronger as the year progresses. And he’s got an advocate in the manager’s office.

“To have somebody like Mitch, who brings something different to the table … the character he brings into the clubhouse is outstanding,” Marmol said. “We’re very excited to have him.”

The feeling is mutual.

“I want to basically enjoy it,” Harris said of his first minor-league mission. “Not a lot of people can say they’ve done what I’ve done.”