WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Hunter Harvey walked into the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse after throwing a bullpen session, jersey in hand. He was still donning a well-worn gray T-shirt with the sleeves cut off.
When a member of the Nationals’ PR staff asked how old the shirt was, Harvey smirked and said his dad used to wear it when he pitched.
Bryan Harvey, a two-time all-star who won the American League Rolaids Relief Man Award in 1991, sported the shirt in 1993 when he was a closer for the Florida Marlins. Last season, he gave it to his son during the all-star break for good luck.
“It was right after he was hurt, and I said: ‘Here, wear this. This is going to change everything,’ ” Bryan Harvey said. “I’m more superstitious than anybody — when I was playing and now when he’s playing. I’ve got certain shirts that I wear when he pitches good and they win. I keep wearing them. I still do crazy stuff now.”
Who knows what magic the shirt holds? But after the all-star break, Harvey didn’t allow a run in 24 of his 31 appearances. He finished the season with a 2.52 ERA. He positioned himself to stay in the back end of Washington’s relief staff. And with Tanner Rainey out until at least the second half of the season recovering from Tommy John surgery, the 28-year-old Harvey could be the team’s closer.
Perhaps most importantly for Harvey, he finished the season healthy after missing two months with a right pronator strain. His talent has never been in question; he was drafted in the first round by the Baltimore Orioles in 2013. But he has struggled to avoid injuries.
“It just felt good to finally be used as a real reliever and not be babied,” Harvey said. “To be able to go back-to-back [games] and three out of four [games] and just be able to actually help the team, it was awesome. And then to be able to go into the offseason just building off of that and getting ready for this year.”
Injuries derailed Bryan Harvey’s career as well. He was able to deceive hitters with just a fastball and a splitter. But his over-the-top delivery wasn’t mechanically sound, and he had a difficult time staying healthy. In 1992, between his all-star seasons, he had a bone spur removed. The right-hander made 13 relief appearances before his arm gave out just as he believes he was “figuring out how to pitch.”
Hunter’s older brother, Kris, was born in 1984 and able to see his father pitch, but Hunter wasn’t born until 1994. Bryan pitched his last MLB game in 1995. Hunter has seen only video, which his dad still shows him to prove how good he was.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to have a really good pitching coach my whole life,” Hunter said. “And some guys don’t have that; they’re on their own in the offseason or with guys who didn’t get to play. So having a guy that’s been there, done it, been in the big situations, knows the mental struggles that there is — you can’t beat it.”
Hunter had a bat in his hand from the age of 2, so he jokes he had no choice but to play baseball. Once he stepped on the mound, Bryan said Hunter always threw strikes.
Hunter hit a growth spurt his junior year of high school and began to throw with increased velocity, reaching 95 mph; that was when Bryan thought his son had a chance to reach the majors. As Bryan spoke about his son from Harvey’s high school baseball field in North Carolina, he said he could still see the major league scouts lined up along the fence to watch him pitch.
Draft day itself was a tease. The Kansas City Royals selected Hunter Dozier with the eighth pick, and the San Diego Padres took Hunter Renfroe 13th, subjecting the family to two first-name false alarms. But Bryan was more excited than Hunter when it was his time.
The father and son still talk after every spring training workout. During the season, they talk on the phone as Hunter makes his way to the stadium and when he heads home afterward. Hunter often is satisfied with his outings, but his dad is another story.
“That’s how it was, even in high school,” Hunter said. “I threw a couple no-hitters in high school, and it’s like ‘What did I do wrong this time?’ There was always something. Just kind of taught you that, no matter what you do, you still have to keep going and keep growing.”
Hunter spent last offseason attempting to revamp his delivery to find a way to stay healthy; he called it “one of the hardest things he has had to do.” But he was more in line with the plate. He uses his legs a bit more. He also added weight to put less strain on his arm.
This offseason, without having to rehab, he focused on throwing his slider and splitter for strikes. He hopes those pitches take batters off his fastball and curveball. He said it doesn’t matter where he pitches, but ideally he hopes to be Washington’s closer.
Why? To catch his dad. He has already passed his brother, who never made it past Class AA with the Marlins. But his dad has 177 career saves. He wants family bragging rights.
“I think I’m better than him,” Hunter said. “When the stats come out in 10 years, I’ll be able to tell him that. But right now, technically stat-wise, he’s got me beat.”
“Until he gets three all-stars and the Rolaids Reliever . . .” Bryan said. “When he passes me in all that, then he can be better than me.
“And trust me, I’m pulling for that to happen. No one wants that to happen worse than I do.”