The Indians’ ‘warrior’
Chipola's Junior Harding overcomes illness, injury to pitch well at JUCO
Junior Harding looked strong on Tuesday.
The Chipola College (Florida) right-hander threw four innings of relief, gave up two hits and struck out eight to lead the Indians into the next round of the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series.
Then Wednesday he returned to the mound and struck out the final two McLennan hitters in the eighth inning to help Chipola stave off elimination.
Coach Jeff Johnson called his pitcher a “warrior.”
This warrior for the Indians went through some rough times before stepping on the Suplizio Field mound.
“I got pretty sick for a while,” the soft-spoken Harding said after the Indians’ 13-8 win Tuesday.
Pretty sick is an understatement.
“In a two-week span, I dropped down to 140 pounds,” he said. “I went to the hospital and they didn’t know what was wrong.”
He was eventually diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, and it was bad.
“It got to be so painful. I have a high pain tolerance as it is, but this was really painful,” he said. “When it hits you, it almost drops you to your knees.”
Everything was on the upswing for the pitcher from Massachusetts. After his freshman season with the Indians, Harding was picked in the 20th round by the Kansas City Royals in the 2015 MLB draft. He didn’t sign and returned to Chipola for his sophomore season.
That’s when the disease forced Harding off the diamond for all of last season.
But the disease was just part of his trouble.
“With that disease, if you don’t get the right medication, it can really mess you up, and they put me on the wrong medicine,” he said.
He was hospitalized for about two weeks, and emergency surgery was considered to remove his large intestine.
“He’s just a warrior, man,” Johnson said. “The kid, he’s been through a lot in his life with his sickness last year and getting through that.”
Harding’s tone turns somber when he looks back at that time.
“Honestly, I didn’t think I was ever going to play baseball again,” he said. “It was a hard thing to come back from, but I kept grinding through the process.”
Now a solidly built 187 pounds, Harding’s right arm has been on full display in his two JUCO appearances. His 10 total strikeouts are tops in the tournament after Thursday, and he’s got his fastball cranked up to 93 mph. He also has a nasty breaking ball that he snaps off in the low 80s to torment the hitters.
The 20-year-old is one of the hardest-throwing pitchers in the tournament and his fastball has been clocked at 97 mph this season. He will be heading to the University of Missouri next season but now that he’s healthy, he’s also back on MLB teams’ radar for the upcoming draft.
It was a long road back from a wicked illness, but Harding’s troubles weren’t quite done yet.
Earlier this season, he bent over to pick up a mat off home plate with his right hand.
That added injury to illness.
“I went to the doctor and he said it was a stress reaction (in his elbow), a total freak accident,” Harding said with a forced smile. “I never thought picking up a mat would do something like that.”
After pitching only 32 innings on the season, Harding was just hitting his stride when the Indians qualified for JUCO.
As far as the disease is concerned, he still gets treatment every eight weeks.
“It’s a genetic disease. It’s unfortunate, but hey, that’s life,” he said.
Harding’s grit and competitiveness hasn’t been lost on his coach or his teammates.
“He’ll do anything he can and he just wants this team to win above all,” Johnson said. “He’s only worried about winning and competing. If they hit him, they hit him, and that’s not gonna bother him.”
After Harding’s dominating performances, he soaked in every moment at his first and only JUCO.
He admitted that it’s a little extra special after going through all the rough times.
“It’s phenomenal. I believe everything happens for a reason,” he said. “I think, with last year, all the things I went through and the adversity I faced, led me right here. This team is great, these are the top players I’ve ever played with in my life. I love ‘em to death, and Coach Johnson is such a phenomenal coach.”
Looking down at the field after the press conference on the third floor of Hamilton Family Tower, he smiled before departing.
“It’s just been awesome,” he said.