After completing the first full game of his four-game rehab assignment on Saturday, the likely final step before he rejoins the Nationals on Monday, Bryce Harper said he was pleased with the condition of his once-balky knee and how it has responded with full-speed action, running and banging without any setbacks.
“I feel pretty good right now,” Harper said after he played nine innings for Class AA Harrisburg at Bowie on Saturday night. “I felt pretty good the last couple days. Nothing really that feels anything like a setback or anything like that. Everything feels good. I’m excited about where I am.”
Harper started in left field and went 0 for 3 with a walk, run and two strikeouts. Over four rehab games across Class A Potomac and Harrisburg, he has been 4 for 11 with three extra-base hits, including a triple and home run, driven in three runs, scored five, walked three times and struck out four times. He was admittedly impatient at the plate Saturday, but he has been pleased with his timing and approach all week.
But, more importantly, he has tested his left knee, which was suffering from lingering bursitis and held him out of games since May 26. He ran hard and well on the bases. He dived head-first back into bases. He slid on his knee on close plays. He scored from first on a double and legged out a triple. He dived head-first for a single in the fifth inning on Saturday, the biggest test of his knee on defense that game, trying to catch a soft line-drive single.
“I wasn’t cautious at all,” he said. “I really wanted to do that and try to slide and put it to the max I could and see how it was and see how it would deal with that. And it felt good diving. Slid into third base a couple times and slid into second a couple times. That diving play [Saturday]. It felt fine. It was good to have that feeling and not be scared to slide or anything like that.”
Harper didn’t try to protect his left knee from banging on the grass or dirt.
“I think it’s still going to get exposed no matter what,” he said. “You’re just trying to play the game hard, and I play the game hard. So if I bang it, it’s going to happen. And I’ll keep going and keep going with the treatment and go from there.”
Harper, who received a cortisone and PRP injection in his knee from noted orthopedic surgeon James Andrews on June 10, said he will continue to ice his knee throughout the season. “I’ll keep treatment on it all year and keep icing it and keep doing what I’m doing because it’s working,” he said.
“The knee has felt good,” he added. “Swelling a little but not anything we should be scared about or anything like that. Just normal in that. Just trying to get out there and play. In the first game and second game, I was running the bases hard. Even when I came out here, the first game, I was running the bases hard. So that was really good to see out of myself. I was excited about that.”
Counter to what Nationals Manager Davey Johnson originally had in mind, Harper played in four rehab games, in part, because he wanted to make sure his timing at the plate was ready to return to facing major league pitching. By playing on Saturday, Harper got the chance to face a major league starter. Left-hander Wei-Yin Chen, rehabbing an oblique injury, started for Bowie, an affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles.
Harper worked deep into counts in his first two at-bats against Chen. Harper saw five pitches in his first plate appearance but struck out looking on a well-placed outside fastball. Harper saw seven pitches in his second plate appearance, fouling off two pitches and holding off on the outside pitches to draw a walk. He scored easily from second on a double by Jimmy Van Ostrand.
Harper also popped up the first pitch of his fifth inning and struck out looking in the eighth inning. Although he finished hitless on the night, he saw 19 pitches over four plate appearances, a high rate.
“I thought he looked good,” Harrisburg Manager Matthew LeCroy said. “[Saturday] he ran into a pretty good pitcher. He took some good swings. He ran the bases with hard turns, scored on a ball hit off the wall, dove for a ball and tried to make a big play. He looks pretty good.”
The Nationals are expecting Harper back on Monday. He is expected to take a day off on Sunday to rest before returning to a lineup that has struggled mightily all season, especially without his bat. Harper said he will see how his knee feels on Sunday and Monday morning, but the decision to return from the disabled list is up to General Manager Mike Rizzo and the Nationals.
But based on how he talked, Harper sounds ready to rejoin the team and provide a lift.
“I really feel like I can help the team,” he said. “We’re doing a great job right now. It’s a little rough but we’re doing a great job up there. [Ian] Desmond is swinging it well still. I get excited when I’m sitting on my couch watching the game and we win a ballgame and Desi hits a homer or something. I’m going nuts. I can’t wait to get back up there with the boys and get going and hopefully take a run at that first place.”