Alden GonzalesESPN staff writer5 minutes to read
LOS ANGELES — Bryce Harper’s historically fast return from Tommy John surgery has brought with it questions of timing, particularly his ability to catch up with the major leaguers after spending much of the past five months focusing mostly on rehab.
A different kind of timing posed an obstacle.
Harper used his timeout by counting two hits in his first against the Los Angeles Dodgers and then again by counting two hits in his second and then again before seeing the first pitch in his third. Not only was Harper, famous for his routine trade between and before courts, playing in his first game of the season on Tuesday night. He was playing his first game on the court clock, one of many new regulations introduced for the 2023 season. It’s going to take some getting used to.
“Your whole life, your whole career, you’ve always slowed the game down,” Harper said after the Philadelphia Phillies’ 13-1 loss at Dodger Stadium. “It took me a long time from the circle on the deck to the batter’s box. And also between pitches, I’m going to take a while. So, sure, an adjustment period. I just got to figure it out—figure out what I want to do, how I want to do it, use My lead time when I need to and I understand the game is going to be at a faster pace for the foreseeable future.”
Harper, who lost at third while serving as a designated hitter, went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in what amounted to the second consecutive night the Dodgers hit 13 runs against Phillies pitchers.
It was an unofficial comeback but also a particularly challenging one.
Harper’s first assignment came in a left-to-left game against Julio Urillas, who boasted a low-profile Premier League finish last season. Urias attacked Harper largely by breaking balls away from him, which Harper had either committed or swung through. Harper hit a low, low outfield curveball on his first at-bat, then stopped on a swing checker in his second and swung through a 1-2 cutter on the outside for good in his third. A fourth strikeout, to lead off the ninth inning from a 12-run deficit against right-hander Phil Pickford, saw him take three swings, the last of which was a false tip on the inside corner cutter.
Phillies manager Rob Thomson believed that Harper’s bat speed was good and that he was “on a lot of pitches”, even if it didn’t yield results.
“I was excited—excited to be back, excited to be back,” said Harper. “But it’s not the game we wanted to have, right? We just have to keep going, keep going. I feel like it’s a matter of pitch selection. And it’s going to stop; it’s going to get better. We’ll just have to give it some time.”
It is an understandable assessment. Just 160 days earlier, on November 23, Harper underwent surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Initial speculation had him return after the All-Star break, but Harper set his sights on this series—from Dodger Stadium, the place where he made his major league debut in 11 years—as his goal. She nurtured him throughout his rehabilitation, giving him something to hunt. He beat the initial schedule by more than two months and ended up returning from Tommy John surgery faster than any registered baseball player, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information.
“He’s obviously not throwing a baseball, but he’s swinging a baseball bat at full speed,” Phillies hitting coach Kevin Long said. “It’s a great job, and I think it’s another chapter in Price Harper’s life.”
The process began in early March, with two sets of 10 dry swings with a much lighter Fong bat from the Phillies spring training complex in Clearwater, Florida. Over the course of about six weeks, Harper and Long progressed through tee work, soft pitching, traditional batting practice, swinging from a high-speed pitching machine and a live bat. Harper has had the equivalent of 50 at-bats against rehab pitchers or minor league pitchers over the past few weeks, opting for controlled environments rather than venturing into a traditional rehab job.
Harper received final clearance from Dr. Neil Al-Atrash, who performed the surgery, in Los Angeles on Monday. Thompson decided to give Harper off that night regardless and was reluctant to start him off with such a tough encounter on Cy Young’s perennial rival, Urias, the next day. But Harper, he said, wanted it.
“He wants to play,” Thompson added. “He’s eager to play.”
Harper was notably aggressive in his return, swinging the first pitch each of the four times he came to bat. He will return to the final lineup for the series on Wednesday, a day game, and is expected to play regularly given the Phillies start this month with four days off in three weeks. Eventually, once his throwing lead reaches a certain point, he will move to first base. But this development is still months away. Right now, the Phillies simply need their bat in the lineup.
“I want the results to be better,” Harper said of his return for the first game. “But admittedly, I’m excited to be back. After six months of grinding, working so hard, and to be able to come back today, I was really excited.”
Harper spent the vast majority of the 2022 season tending to a torn right bicep, was the Phillies DH, and hit . 296/. 368/. 522 in 90 games there during the regular season, then hit four home runs. An epic postseason race that culminated in a World Series appearance. That year, though, Harper ranked 11th among 376 batters at slowest pace among pitches with the bases empty, as measured by Baseball Savant. In other words, he took a long time in the batter’s box.
Now, in a new wrinkle, he’ll have the ballpark clock to work against.
“It will be an adjustment for me,” Harper said. “But it is what it is at this point.”