Bryce Harper returned, ahead of schedule but just in time, to extend the Phillies’ lineup

LOS ANGELES — Bryce Harper, on the brink of doing something faster than any baseball player has ever done, was there on Monday afternoon. It was here at Dodger Stadium that he made his debut as one of the most exciting prospects of all time. That was 11 years ago. The next chapter of his baseball life begins Tuesday night when he returns to the Phillies just 160 days after Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.

Harper, as he has countless times before, crouched in the dirt on Monday and chatted with Scott Boras. Harper referred to his longtime agent and friend. This whole thing is shocking because Harper, 30, tested the limits of a baseball player’s body. But these chats don’t surprise Boras with anything about Harper — not even that.

“It’s still his desire for that 15-year-old boy I met 15 years ago,” Porras said. “He hasn’t changed. He comes out before the game and says to me, ‘I’m doing this, I’m doing that.’ I give him the caution thing. He’s pointing his finger at me and telling me I don’t want to hear that.”

Boras laughed.

“It’s the same voice, the same enthusiasm,” Porras said. I start laughing. And he adds, “This — doesn’t change, does it?” I honestly think it’s going to be like this when he’s 40.”

It takes more than plenty to beat a set schedule to get back into the majors by months. Finally, Harper could admit on Monday that he’s been thinking about this series against the Dodgers since winter. He needed to have a goal in mind to work toward. He really was ready to come back a few weeks ago, Harper said, but the doctors never cleared him.

“My body has been very good to me in the process,” said Harper. “I worked really hard on all aspects of it — the weight room, the diet, everything I could do to make my body heal faster.”

Harper, who had the surgery on Nov. 23, hasn’t disclosed his exact target date with several people. Boras was one of them.

He kept saying to me, Labor Day. May Day. I go, Bryce, don’t tell that to anyone, Boras said. The doctor and everyone else says the norm is August. You’re talking, oh my god, three months ago (before). You can not do that. Don’t say a word.”

Harper insisted he could do it. In the eyes of Phillies manager Rob Thomson, it became a reality a few weeks ago when Harper’s body responded well to facing straight shooters.

“I’ll do this,” Harper told Boras.

He did.

“you know what?” Boras said Monday afternoon. “He’s just an elite talent. He’s got those genius genes that allow him to heal. He’s just the best professional athlete made for his game.”

Bryce Harper practices hitting against Ranger Suárez in April. (Charles Ricks Arbogast/The Associated Press)

Here’s the thing: When Harper returns, everyone moves down. Someone has to hit the sixth. Someone has to hit eight. Brandon Marsh, who entered Monday 4th in the OPS majors, is probably going to bat Tuesday night 7th. Thompson likes to alternate left- and right-handed hitters in his lineup to prevent opponents from getting favorable tackles later in the game. He can do this through the entire multiplication order if he aligns it like this:

1. Bryson Stott 2b
2. Trea Turner SS
3. Bryce Harper D
4. Nick Castellanos RF
5. Kyle Schwarber LF
6. GT Realmoto C.F
7. Brandon Marsh CF
8. Alec Baum 1b
9. Edmundo Sosa 3b

Schwarber never got as high as first or second last season with Thompson as coach. He’s achieved the third-most of the time in 2023. It might be tough for him to slide down to fifth. But it might be a better place to run production for him. Schwarber hit his seventh homer of the season in Monday’s 13-4 loss to the Dodgers. All seven were single crawlers.

Baum, who leads the team in RBIs, hasn’t gotten lower than seventh this season. The left-right balance would allow Thompson to move up or down either of the right-handed hitters if they were on a hot streak. Maybe Bohm or Realmuto will claim the cleaning spot sometime in the summer. Maybe not.

“It really creates a long lineup,” said Thompson. “When you see the lineup, you’ll see some good hitters on the way there because (Harper) is back. Once he gets hot, we’ll be a bunch of people.”

With Bryce Harper back, can the Phillies drop Kyle Schwarber for the fifth? (Bill Streicher / USA Today)

The Phillies entered Monday second in the National League in batting average but seventh in on-base percentage — seventh in runs scored. It’s a deep lineup, especially with Harper in the middle, but it hasn’t always been consistent in 2023.

They are a team built to attack. Rotation fears aren’t going away anytime soon. This is not a problem exclusive to the Phillies. The entire sport is still adjusting to the new rules that have increased offensive production.

The game has changed since Harper last played. There is a pitch hour. There is no more shifting. The Phillies decided against minor league rehab games because they had not seen enough promotion. If Harper plays, he should be in the majors, though they expect this to be a transfer.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes a while to get the real time back,” Thompson said. “But I am quite confident in his ability.”

Harper will wear the same brace he wore last season while tore a ligament in his elbow. He has more experience than ever as a DH than last season. He knows what I felt. But this is a new elbow.

“I can’t just sit here and say I would feel the same way,” Harper said. “But (last year) definitely gave me a sense of what it would feel like to play.”

Harper will be the DH upon his return. It is unclear when he will return to the field. (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

The whole time, Harper thought there was only one place for him to do rehab work—and that was with the Phillies. Recovering from Tommy John surgery is drab. But Harper wanted someone he could trust to run things. This is Paul Bouchet, the team’s chief athletic trainer. “It really allowed me to feel my way through this as much as possible,” Harper said. “He allowed me to be myself, too. He gave me that control and pulled me in gradually when I needed it. Without him pushing me through the process, I don’t think I would be sitting here ready to go.”

Bouchet was the one who texted Thompson with the news Monday morning that Dr. Neil Alattrash, the orthopedic surgeon who performed the surgery, had cleared Harper for trauma slides.

Boras was comfortable with Phillies’ plan. He directs his agents to al-Atrash.

“I think he, like everyone else, is a little surprised by such rapid progress,” Porras said. “But the strength tested. All of those things are in place. And Price does a downward motion, not an over-the-shoulder motion. It’s going to take him two months to get back to his bowling. So we fully expect his bat speed and all that stuff… He’s completed the physical component of it. No further injury.” , He can go at full speed. He can stop swinging. His strength has returned.”

Phillies (15-15) tread water without Harper. They just expected it would be longer without him. Harper is back. He was always the one who defied expectations.

All Boras had to do was hear Harper speak.

“I remember sometimes when I was a kid in the game, and I would hear Ted Williams talk,” Boras said. “Or I hear Willie Mays talk. Or Lou Brock talk about stealing the bases. I always remember that tone. It’s direct. It’s in them. It’s the passion of a part of them. And I think Price shares that with the greats of the game.”

Go deeper

Inside Bryce Harper’s at-bat for the ages: A Phillies star rewatches the swing of his life

(Top photo: Kirby Lee/USA Today)

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