- The Washington Times - Monday, August 25, 2008

The question was posed to several players sprinkled throughout the Washington Nationals‘ clubhouse over the weekend, and the answer was always the same.

Who has been the Nationals’ MVP in 2008? Willie Harris.

Let that one sink in a little bit. The MVP on a major league baseball team is a .255-hitting utilityman with 12 homers and 38 RBI? You better believe it.

Crazy as this notion may have sounded back in April - or even July, perhaps - no one has been more valuable to this team than Harris, who at age 30 has enjoyed a career renaissance in a most unlikely situation.

Signed to a modest $850,000 contract over the winter and asked to serve in a multitude of roles off the Nationals’ bench, Harris instead has become an indispensable member of Manny Acta’s starting lineup - no matter where he plays in the field.

Harris, a natural second baseman, has appeared in 14 games there. But he also has played 14 games at third base (where he only appeared twice before in his career), three at shortstop and 16 in center field. He has settled comfortably into left field, playing in 64 games while Elijah Dukes and others have battled injuries.

And he has been nothing short of spectacular regardless of his position. Know how many errors he has committed this year? Three. His fielding percentage is .986.

Of course, his biggest contributions have come at the plate, where the one-time slap hitter has metamorphosed into one of this team’s most potent power hitters. This is a guy who over the first 1,243 at-bats of his major league career hit a total of seven home runs. That’s one every 178 at-bats.

So naturally it should come as no surprise that in 282 at-bats this season Harris already has clubbed 12 homers (one every 24 at-bats).

It has become a running joke in the Washington clubhouse each time Harris hits a homer to ask him whether he considers himself a power hitter yet. He keeps blushing and insisting no, but everyone else knows better.

Harris has matured as a hitter. He knows he doesn’t need simply to slap the ball to left field and hope for a single anymore. He has enough oomph in his 5-foot-9 frame to drive the ball to right-center, and he hasn’t sacrificed any of his hitting technique in swinging a little harder.

Which explains how Harris is tied with Lastings Milledge for the team lead in home runs and second only to Ronnie Belliard among regulars in slugging percentage (.453 through Saturday).

For all those reasons, Harris has been one of the Nationals’ best in 2008. But the reason he stands above everyone else as this team’s MVP is that he has done it all with a smile on his face, a hop in his step and not an ounce of ego in his body.

There was a time earlier in his career, when he first came up with the Baltimore Orioles, when Harris could come across as a little too confident for someone of his pedigree. But baseball has a funny way of humbling people, and seven seasons spent bouncing from the Orioles to the White Sox to the Red Sox to the Braves and now to the Nationals have given Harris some perspective.

He remains confident in his abilities - he always will be that way - but he has accepted his place in this game and knows that he can best contribute to a ballclub when he’s willing to do anything asked of him. Which is exactly what he has done for Washington this season.

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