The bruise in his knee hardly stood out in comparison at first, but it became the primary source of concern. After he started two games in San Diego, he sat the next two in an effort to stem the swelling in his knee.
The signs his swollen knee had compromised carried over even to warmups. Harper scaled back his pregame hitting routine, saving wear on his knee and preserving himself for his at-bats during the game.
“It did limit him in certain ways, because you didn’t want him to beat himself up more,” hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. “You wanted him to prepare, obviously, but you didn’t want him to do so much that maybe it would have a negative effect going into the game. So, yeah, things were tapered. I think Bryce is smart that way. A lot of that was done naturally on his own. He knows his body and how he feels.”
“He’s a tough kid,” Eckstein added. “He’s really tough. A lot of times, he doesn’t want to share fully the extent of everything. Obviously, he was dealing with more than what you could see.”
Harper returned again and played the entirety of five straight games. On May 26, he limped through seven innings against the Phillies before Johnson pulled him. The next day, he received an MRI exam, and Nationals physician Wiemi Douoguih diagnosed bursitis, saying the test revealed no structural damage.
One option for treating bursitis is a cortisone shot, a common practice in athletics. Cortisone dulls pain and ebbs swelling and inflammation. Harper said last week he would not consider it.
“I don’t want to put any of that stuff in my knee or in my body,” Harper said. “I think that can do some damage to my knee. I’m not going to do that at 20 years old.”
It is not clear whether the Nationals had presented cortisone as an option, either before or after Harper went on the disabled list. But his father said they had discussed the possibility and called it one possible outcome of the visit with Andrews. Those close to Harper put no pressure on him to receive a shot, leaving the decision up to him.
“I don’t blame the kid for not wanting to put anything in his body,” Ron Harper said. “He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t smoke. He doesn’t put anything in his body outside MLB regulations. He wants to be the cleanest player out there. I told him I was proud of him. I told him it was totally up to you. I also told him I had a couple in my shoulder and it worked for me. I’m just giving him fatherly advice, not doctorly advice.”
Twenty-eight days passed between Harper’s knee slamming into the wall and his appointment with Andrews, 28 days in which Harper played through pain or couldn’t play at all. An immediate trip to the DL may have limited the injury to 15 days. Harper planned to learn from the experience, to learn when — and when not to — Cowboy Up.