HOUSTON – Bryce Harper defied every conventional schedule as he recovered from Tommy John surgery, and now the operation has reached its tipping point. Harper will see the doctor Monday morning in Los Angeles. If cleared, he is expected to return to the Phillies’ lineup as the designated hitter Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium — just 160 days after surgery to rebuild his right elbow.
It’s an amazing development for the Phillies, who had been anticipating months without Harper before the season began. But, as Harper’s body responded well to the increased activity, the Phillies embarked on an accelerated program.
“He’s so obsessed with getting out and playing,” Phillies manager Rob Thompson said. “It itches.”
Harper returns only as a hitter, and this allows him to compose one of the fastest returns from Tommy John surgery ever recorded. The current plan hinges on his appointment with Dr. Neil Al-Atrash, the orthopedist who performed Harper’s Tommy John surgery on November 23. The Phillies determined that even if Harper was acquitted on Monday, he would not be activated Monday night to open the Series against the Dodgers.
Harper would be the DH for months; He’ll continue to learn first base through pre-game drills, but clearing up to throw without restrictions will take time. The Feelys don’t want to rush this aspect of this revival.
But they were willing to be aggressive with the hitting element—as long as Harper felt comfortable. He has. Harper continued his modified spring training over the weekend at Minute Maid Park and faced two minor league pitchers in live hitting practice sessions. Hitting coach Kevin Long has estimated that Harper will have about 50 batters against the live pitch in those controlled settings by the time he activates.
For this reason the Phillies chose not to do the job of minor league rehab. Didn’t see much upside.
The club had originally scheduled Harper’s return as DH at some point “before the All-Star break”. If he was acquitted on Monday and returned on Tuesday, he would have beaten this projection by more than two months.
“Amazing,” said Dave Dombrowski, President of Baseball Operations. “He’s absolutely amazing. He’s a great athlete. He works hard. He’s focused. He wants to come back. I mean, what he’s accomplished is amazing. We have the next step (with the doctor to clear him). But the progress he’s made has been phenomenal.”
Few inside the Phillies club were surprised by Harper’s speed.
“Standard,” Nick Castellanos said. “I mean, Bryce would go into this while Bryce Harper would do anything. You know? So focused, so meticulous, so dedicated. You mix in natural talent with all that stuff and you get a third-place finish.”
But Castellanos did not feel reckless with Harper’s assignment.
Castellanos said: “Just talking to him, he’s always focused on just wanting to get back as soon as possible, but also taking into account the advice of medical professionals. So it’s always a balance, and I’m sure there’s a compromise. I’m sure there’s part of it.” He probably really wants to come back. And I’m sure there are people on the medical staff who want him to wait another month. You know? When he comes back, we’ll be ready for him with open arms just to relax and do his thing.”
The Phillies’ big-league medical staff oversaw Harper’s rehabilitation because he chose to stay with the team rather than complete his work at the club’s Florida complex. Harper will wear padding to protect his right elbow when he hits. As a right-handed thrower who hits left-handed, the right elbow has less stress when he swings. He tore ligaments in his injured elbow all last season.
There are additional concerns about Harper returning without a move. He pushed his body with basic running drills, but they didn’t match the intensity of real game speed. That could put Harper at risk of soft tissue injury if he tries to do his best on the bases.
The Phillies are going to tell Harper to be smart about it, but he usually has one speed when he plays.
Harper’s return will force Kyle Schwarber to play left field on a daily basis, and the Phillies have prepared Schwarber for the brunt there. He hasn’t moved well in April and it’s possible he has some sort of knee ailment, but that has been denied by everyone associated with the club.
“When he started playing every day, his legs hurt,” Thompson said. “He hadn’t really had spring training as much as he was playing the field. That’s why we kind of leaned into the DH role. Now he’s starting to feel a lot better.”
Schwarber didn’t have a great month at the plate in April, and Trea Turner slacked off for most of the month. The Phillies had to use Jake Keefe and Josh Harrison more than they ever imagined. However, the Phillies finished in April among the top three teams in extra base hits and batting average. They finished the month with a winning record.
“We had a great first month in baseball,” said Castellanos. “I think we’ve really dealt with some adversity as a group. I think we’ve had spurts of individuals who have had their ups and downs.”
And now, Harper is about to join them.
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