Houston Harding's Wild 2021 Rides Through Rocket City
The most stressful moment of Houston Harding's 2021 season wasn't when he took the mound with his Mississippi State Bulldogs facing elimination in the College World Series.
Instead, it was the next day, when he had to watch his teammates fight for the National Championship from the dugout in the decisive Game 3 against Vanderbilt in Omaha.
"That's actually the worst part. I'm never nervous when I'm on the field. I'm cool, calm, and collected," Harding said of his view of the final game of his college career. "When I'm in the dugout and there's nothing I can do to affect the outcome of the game, I am a complete wreck. I am a mental wreck and pacing back and forth, biting my nails because I can't do anything about it."
It turns out, Harding had little to worry about for that final game on June 30, as Mississippi State routed Vanderbilt 9-0 to cap a dream season and win the National Championship.
But the Bulldogs would have never had that chance in Game 3 if not for Harding's heroics in Game 2 the day before. Needing a win to stay alive, Harding gave up one run over four innings before reliever Preston Johnson held Vanderbilt in check the rest of the way, leading the Bulldogs to a 13-2 win to keep the season going. In that moment, Harding knew he was in the place he was meant to be.
"It means the absolute world to me to know the coaches have that much faith in me to start that game," he said. "The level of confidence they had in me really motivated and encouraged me to leave it all on the field. The feeling that I got on the mound, probably pure euphoria was the best way to explain it because it was a once in a lifetime opportunity."
With the pursuit of a national title dominated Harding's senior season, it proved to only be a stopping point on his 2021 journey. After arriving back in Starkville from Omaha, the team was met by hoards of fans cheering on their success before a parade through the city that started a week of celebrations.
With a championship ring secured, the southpaw had to turn his attention to his new career and a path toward the big leagues.
Although Harding wasn't picked in the MLB Draft, he soon got an opportunity after a couple phone calls with Los Angeles Angels General Manager Perry Minasian. After signing as a free agent, the 23-year-old was off to Phoenix to start his professional career. He made two appearances for the Rookie League Angels on August 26 and September 2, then received a call that he would be joining the Trash Pandas for the final two weeks of the season.
It is a substantial jump to reach Double-A after being in college earlier in the season. But it was one Harding embraced, despite not fully understanding the intricacies of what a Trash Panda is.
In two appearances for the Trash Pandas, Harding was solid. In his debut at Birmingham on September 7, he gave up two runs in three innings while striking out three. Five days later, he again faced the Barons and allowed one run in two innings. The five innings at Double-A showed the difference between college and professional baseball.
"My first outing, I gave up a homer on a changeup. It was a fastball count and I threw a changeup, and the batter was sitting on it," Harding recalled. "That was my big welcome to Double-A moment. I wanted to make a good impression and I did well for the first few innings. But there's nothing like a solo home run to ruin the outing."
Although his first professional experience may have been soured by the home run, the time with the Trash Pandas has provided all the incentive for Harding as he prepares for the 2022 campaign.
"All the motivation I needed came from that little taste of it. That was very eye opening," Harding said. "The brand new field in Rocket City is beautiful. That's somewhere I want to play, and somewhere I think I can play and put up good numbers. That's the big motivation for me is getting back there and hopefully moving up."
Making his Double-A debut with the dream of reaching the big leagues is a long way from where Harding was in 2020, when the pandemic ended his first season at Mississippi State after just two starts. With that, he only had one year of college baseball left after starting his career at Itawamba Community College.
With baseball off the table in 2020, Harding turned to another passion, turkey hunting. Since baseball season and turkey hunting season usually coincide with each other, he never had the chance to spend a full season in the great outdoors. With the season spent off the mound, Harding learned a valuable lesson.
"Don't take a pitch for granted because you never know what can happen," he said. "Soak up every moment. That's what I learned the most. My first year at Mississippi State got cancelled and I only had one left so I did the best to soak up every minute that I could."
With that mindset and the previous experience powering him on the mound, Harding will seek to reach new heights as he enters his first full professional season in 2022, with a possible return to Rocket City on the horizon.
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Southern League Stories from December 28, 2021
- Houston Harding's Wild 2021 Rides Through Rocket City - Rocket City Trash Pandas
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