One ball landed in the visitors’ bullpen, beyond the left field fence. Another bruised the third row of the upper deck overhanging the right field scoreboard. Another crashed on to the grass berm in center field, five feet in front of the row of cameras at the back wall of the stadium. They kept exploding off Bryce Harper’s bat and flying over fences in every corner of Nationals Park.
Only 7:05 p.m. matters, of course, and Harper will not rush back to hit in games. But the show Harper put on in an empty park at 3 in the afternoon, his first full batting practice since he underwent surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb, suggested he has lost none of his power during his two months on the disabled list. If anything, he may have actually gained some.
“Outstanding,” hitting coach Rick Schu said. “It looks like he’s ready to go to me. The easiness that he’s hitting the ball opposite field for homers tells you he’s in a pretty good spot. I think maybe getting his hand fixed got everything locked back in. It was as easy as I’ve seen him hit the ball for a while. It was like old Bryce right there. Good to see.”
Harper hit with Wilson Ramos, who is due to come off the disabled list with a strained left hamstring June 26, the first day he is eligible.
“We almost ran out of baseballs,” Manager Matt Williams said. “Between him and Wilson, whoever gets in the park first today and goes to the outfield will have lots of souvenirs.”
Harper has had no setbacks with this thumb, and Williams hopes Harper can return around July 1. Harper had been swinging with two hands for two days, testing his thumb in the cage. On the field Thursday, he took another step.
“I got a little bit of adrenaline going through me right now so I don’t know if I’ll feel that,” Harper said. “But of course it’s probably going to be a little swollen for having that impact on it. I won’t know until later in the day.”
Harper also took outfield practice. Williams said Harper could see action at all three outfield spots upon his return, and Harper caught flies in right field Thursday. Five coaches stood at home plate, with bullpen coach Matt LeCroy flipping balls for third base coach Bobby Henley to whack into right field. After Harper raced back and made a running catch over his right shoulder, first base coach Tony Tarasco clapped his hands and Schu raised his fists into the air. After a similar catch a few minutes later, Tarasco clapped and shouted encouragement.
Earlier in his rehab, Harper said he would prefer to play center field when he return. Thursday, he said he would be amenable to playing anywhere.
“It doesn’t really matter to me,” Harper said. “I just want to play. I just want to be in the lineup. Hopefully I can help the team win and see where I’m when I come back.”
Harper could begin a rehab assignment early next week, Williams said. Harper could start with a three-inning stint and progress slowly, including a day between games, like in spring training.
“If goes down and hits two homers, he’s going to say, ‘I’m ready to go,’ ” Williams said. “But we got to make sure he’s ready ready.”
Harper actually showed restraint, saying he wanted to take his time to regain his swing and his timing. Even as he learned a new position, Ryan Zimmerman took four games in the minors before he returned. Harper said he wanted to play for more than a week, at least seven games.
“I really want to see where my thumb is at, how it feels,” Harper said. “I really want to take time to get better every single day. If it takes longer than that, it takes longer than that. If it takes less, it takes less. But I don’t see myself coming back after five games or four games. I really want to push it and see how I feel after eight, nine games down there. If I feel good before that, then we’ll see.”
Said Williams: “I think that’s the good answer. He wants to play as badly as anybody does. It’s important for him to go when he’s ready to go.”
Taking batting practice, Harper sure seemed ready. Schu wondered if Harper’s thumb surgery had allowed him to swing more freely. Harper had hurt the ligament in high school, and Thursday he revealed it had been partially torn for his entire major league career. Still, he said he felt no difference now compared to before the injury.
“I didn’t have any pain in it my whole life,” Harper said. “Even with it being 75 percent torn the whole time I’ve been here, I had no pain until I slid into third base.”
“He looks really tension-free, easy power,” Schu said. “He’s got good angles working. It was only BP. But that was definitely not favoring any injury, and the ball is coming off his bat great. Those were oppo tanks. Those were big. It’s impressive.”