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Top prospect Harrison making adjustments as Giants debut nears

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SACRAMENTO -- When you're as highly touted as Kyle Harrison, every box score is dissected for signs that the next step is coming. And it's not just Giants fans who are going line by line.

Harrison's family members and friends are anxiously waiting for him to take the final step from De La Salle to Oracle Park, and Giants officials talk often about how quickly everything might snap into place. It could be a stretch of just two or three dominant starts that show Harrison is fully ready for the big leagues.

Harrison had that type of week at the end of May, allowing just one hit over two shutout starts against the Los Angeles Dodgers' Triple-A affiliate and striking out 14 while walking just four. It wasn't just the results that opened eyes within the organization.

The 21-year-old started mixing in a different slider late last month, and he felt comfortable with the pitch just about right away. As he pushes for a promotion, Harrison's mastery of the tighter slider might be just as important as his strikeout numbers or how many runs he's giving up.

Harrison has always thrown a fastball that can touch the upper 90s, a big slider, and a changeup that he'll flash a few times per start. But he now is essentially throwing two sliders, one that's a little faster and acts like a cutter, and his old one that's more of a sweeper and is a better weapon with two strikes.

The Giants and Harrison are hopeful the new slider can help him get some quicker outs and get deeper into games. Early on this season, hitters were giving up on his sweeper as it left his hand, but the new slider is thrown in the mid-80s and has helped him more consistently get in the strike zone.

"I think the fastball command has come along and it's been going good. I think I'm past the point of the fastball command (being an issue)," he said on Thursday's Giants Talk Podcast. "Now it's figuring out how to throw that new slider that I'm throwing, the new gyro slider, how to land that more consistently to get me back in counts and just establishing the sweeper off of that. It's just trying to see what plays and figure out ways to sequence. That's the next step."

Brian Bannister, the organization's director of pitching, helped Harrison with the grip and River Cats pitching coach Garvin Alston has helped him implement it in games and make adjustments. It's a daily process, with Harrison constantly working on the shape. Alston has helped Harrison keep the focus where it should be.

"He tells me all the time, 'Just trust the process, don't think too much big picture,'" Harrison said. "It's one game at a time, one outing at a time, one bullpen at a time."

That can be hard to do when you see members of your draft class -- Patrick Bailey and Casey Schmitt -- settle in at the big league level, but Harrison has mostly managed to avoid the noise. The Giants have stayed patient, too, even with multiple injuries in their big league rotation.

Harrison will make his 13th start in Triple-A on Friday night. Through the first dozen, he has a 3.55 ERA with 66 strikeouts in 38 innings. The only real issue has been occasional struggles with command, resulting in 34 walks and plenty of long innings.

The Giants have kept Harrison on a strict pitch count and he'll be in the 75-80 pitch range for a while longer, so he's working on finding different ways to get deep into games. Harrison's season-high for innings in a start is four.

River Cats manager Dave Brundage has had to be careful with his ace, but he has seen plenty of growth, even in the shorter outings. Harrison, he said, has learned how to coach himself on the mound.

"He's had ups and downs, he's had outings when he's walked off sticking his chest out and other times with his tail between his legs at times," Brundage said. "But that's the experience for a 21-year-old young man that's got all the talent in the world and I know he's heard that a thousand times and I know San Francisco is excited about it.

"But at the same time, we've got to have patience … Time will tell when Kyle Harrison is ready, but he's certainly gaining experience and he has all the stuff in the world to pitch at the big league level. Now it's just refining everything."

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Whenever the next step is taken, it may actually prove to be easier for Harrison in one respect. As a pitcher who lives at the top of the zone with his fastball, he has been hurt more than most by the experiment with an automatic strike zone in Triple-A, which provided another reason to turn to a tighter slider. The sweeper is harder to command when he's not getting any wiggle room around the edges of the zone and when his catchers aren't allowed to frame it.

"If I could have something that's shorter to get me back in counts or even put guys away, why not?" he said. "It'll just make it that much easier at the big league level to get a strike across."

As Harrison sat on a bench in the dugout and watched teammates take batting practice earlier this week, reminders of that next level were all around him. Joey Bart and David Villar took early batting practice, and the main session included Bryce Johnson and Brett Wisely, two players who were at Oracle Park last weekend. Sean Hjelle stood behind second base, gathering all the baseballs that were being thrown in from the outfield grass.

It can get in your head when you're just a 90-minute drive from a debut you've waited your whole life for, and the Giants have seen that with top prospects in the past, but Harrison is trying not to think too big. He tries to remind himself that it's the small adjustments that will make the biggest difference in his bid to reach the big leagues this season.

"It's really just trying to figure out what's going to get you ready for the big leagues. I think that's the biggest thing for me, and once I figure that out and I feel fully prepared, then I think it's a go," he said. "But at this point, I think we've got some things to work on and we're just going to keep working on it and keep getting after it."

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