Phillies’ Bryce Harper on early comeback: ‘The body has been so good to me’

Alden GonzalezESPN staff writer5 minutes to read

It’s time to activate Bryce Harper in your decks.

Eric looks at what’s in store for a returning Phillies Slugger.

LOS ANGELES — The leitmotif in baseball was that Bryce Harper wouldn’t rejoin the Philadelphia Phillies until after the All-Star break, possibly at a later date. Tommy John surgery, the procedure Harper underwent in late November, requires a lengthy rehabilitation process, even for players looking to just hit. But Harper had set his mind to an earlier date. Since beginning his recovery, he’s targeted this week’s series at Dodger Stadium as his ideal running back, keeping him at the forefront of his mind as he navigates the humdrum of his rehabilitation.

“I wanted to put myself as close as possible in my mind, understanding to work towards something to get out there,” Harper said Monday. “It could have been mid-April, it could have been the end of May, early May, but I wanted to set my mind on something to really take advantage of that.”

Harper received final clearance Monday from Dr. Neil Al Atrash, who replaced the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow on November 23, and will return to the Phillies lineup as the designated hitter for Tuesday’s game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, just 160 days since the procedure. Harper is the fastest known player to return from Tommy John surgery, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information, beating former player Tony Womack, who required a 182-day recovery in 2004.

Harper, 30, will join the lineup without venturing into the traditional rehab assignment, instead piling up roughly the equivalent of 50 games against rehab pitchers or minor league pitchers in controlled settings before Phillies games in the weeks prior.

“My body has been very good to me in the process,” said Harper.

Phillies manager Rob Thompson said he’s still undecided about where Harper will get in the lineup, but will likely separate him from fellow left-handed hitter Kyle Schwarber, as he has throughout the 2022 season. The Phillies have four days off within the next three weeks, making It gives Harper a chance to be in his lineup on a regular basis as long as his body responds positively. Harper has benefited from surgical repair of his lead elbow when he hits; Doctors note that it is more difficult for hitters when the elbow is trailing, which goes through more stress during the swing. But the concern with Harper is the ferocity with which he swings. The Phillies made no effort to mitigate it.

“Even if you tried, you wouldn’t be able to,” Thompson said of Harper, who will wear an elbow pad on his surgically repaired elbow. “Through all the doctors, through all the things we’ve done — I have no qualms about that.”

Harper played most of the 2022 season in tears in the Champions League. He began as the Phillies DH in mid-April and remained there when a PRP injection did not heal the ligament enough to allow him to resume pitching without risk of further damage. Harper, a right fielder by trade, adjusted it admirably, hitting .304/.375/.557 with 23 home runs in 107 games, a stretch that included an exhilarating playoff run that saw the Phillies reach the World Series.

Surgery of some sort seemed inevitable at the start of the leave, and an MRI scan revealed that the ligament damage was significant enough to warrant a Tommy John, unlike the internal stent procedure which required less recovery time. The Phillies initially announced that Harper could return as a DH “by the 2023 All-Star break with the possibility of a return to right field play at the end of the regular season,” a schedule more in line with recent history. Ignoring precedent, Harper instead listened to his body, holding back when pain showed up but pushing himself as hard as he could on days when he felt good.

“I really tried to do everything I could to get to this point,” Harper said. “It was tough, coming every day – on the field or in (the coach’s room) – just understanding my body and how I feel and where I can push myself mentally and physically.”

Harper volunteers to play first base at last, which helps the Phillies by freeing up DH and temporarily replacing Reese Hoskins, who tore his ACL during spring training. But Harper still only throws from 90 feet and has a long way to go before he can hit the field. He started working on his slide a couple of weeks ago, starting with the first slides before starting the dive first. This aspect may be the biggest concern with Harper’s return – but he doesn’t think that concern will abate with time.

“Whenever I have major surgery, anything can happen — a tick on me, slipping in a bag or something,” Harper said. “But I got word today that it wouldn’t matter now today or in a couple of months. We would’ve been in the same place that we’re going to be. We’ve healed to where I need to be, and we’re just going to play the game smart, play it the right way and not drive crazy the way I do.” I play with it. But understand that I help my team when I’m on the field, not when I’m off the field.”

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