Any concern about the fitness of Bryce Harper’s left knee faded over the past month. In the middle of February, the surgically repaired knee was the most worrisome joint in Viera, Fla. Would Harper’s rehab be complete? Would soreness disrupt his preparation for the season? Would the injuries he suffered and play through last year linger? All those questions evaporated.
From the start, Harper harbored no doubts. His confidence derived from trust in his doctor and his rigorous rehab program. In almost one month of games, Harper experienced no setbacks or discomfort, and he needed no adjustments. He plays most every day, and his left knee is barely a consideration. For maintenance, Harper performs physical therapy twice a week. He also concentrates a weight-lifting workout on his upper body twice a week.
“I’m excited,” Harper said before the Nationals‘ game yesterday. “I haven’t felt any pain or any swelling or anything like that. Of course, you’re going to get a little swelling here or there. But it feels great. I have no complaints with it. I don’t even feel like I had surgery at all.”
With his health settled, Harper can focus on his performance at the plate. After two hits Saturday, he continued to pull himself from a spring slump Sunday. Harper bounced a single through the middle in his first at-bat. He also drew a walk and nearly beat out a bunt single.
Harper is 8 for 36 with six walks and nine strikeouts, with just two extra-base hits. “I don’t think it’s a matter of finding my swing,” Harper said. “My swing is always going to be there. It’s just a matter of having good [at-bats] and not swinging at bad pitches.”
Harper’s top priority, in fact, is laying off pitches out of the zone. Last year, 37.3 percent of the pitches Harper saw were in the strike zone. Among hitters with at least 450 plate appearances, only notorious free swinger Pablo Sandoval received strikes with less frequency.
This year, Harper wants to punish pitchers for giving him little to hit. In 2013, Harper walked in 12.3 percent of his plate appearances, which would have ranked sixth in the National League if he had enough plate appearances to qualify, which he almost did. He also posted a .368 on-base percentage, which would have ranked 13th. He wants to crank up both.
“I’m excited to just have good [at-bats] and drive my walks and get my on-base percentage through the roof,” Harper said. “I just really want to get my on-base percentage up. I want to get on base every single time I get up there. Whether it’s a walk or a base hit, I really don’t care how I want to get on base. I just want to be on.”
Harper’s goals cannot be met in the spring. Like Manager Matt Williams, Harper believes his slow start in spring will have no correlation to his performance in the regular season. Harper aims to “start up from what I did in that first month” last year. Remember when he hit .344/.430/.720 in April last season. It would be unreasonable to expect another April like that. But Harper has met unreasonable expectations before.
“Of course, I want to be locked in by the first game of the season,” Harper said. “Once those lights come on, it’s a totally different ballgame. Everybody knows that. I’m excited for day one. I’m excited to get going. We’ll see where I’m at March 31.”
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FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
DAYS UNTIL OPENING DAY