After playing in pain for a month and taking another two weeks to rehab from bursitis in his left knee, Bryce Harper plans to return to the Nationals‘ lineup only after he feels 100 percent in the health of his knee and the timing of his swing. His manager has a different idea.
Harper said today that he is targeting Wednesday or Thursday as the start to his rehab assignment, but only if his body feels ready. Once in the minors, Harper wants to play six games to ensure he regains timing after having been sidelined since May 27.
“I want to take as much time and take as many days as I can,” Harper said. “I don’t want to just rush into things. If I play Wednesday or Thursday, that’s great. If I don’t, I’m not going to. If it takes five days, it’s going to take five days. If it takes two, then it’s going to take two. If it takes more than that, that’s how it’s going to be.”
Manager Davey Johnson, meanwhile, had a differing view. He still thought Harper could begin a rehab assignment as early as Tuesday at Class A Potomac. He also said he does not think Harper needs a week of minor league action, that two or three games should be enough to get his swing back.
“I’ll have a conversation with him about that,” Johnson said. “When a player starts playing, it’s really up to me, what I think they need. It’s not up to the player. I’m always trying to do what’s best for the player. But at the same time, it’s my job to know when they’re ready and when they’re not.”
Harper continued his escalation of physical activity today. Outfield coach Tony Tarasco swatted him grounders in center field as head athletic trainer Lee Kuntz looked on. Harper also practiced catching balls over his shoulder, thrown by Tarasco, who ran behind him. Tomorrow, Johnson said, Harper will take full batting practice on the field for the first time.
On June 10, Harper visited renowned orthopedist James Andrews and received a cortisone shot in his swollen left knee. After resting for a month, Harper finally feels pain-free, even if he worries he may have to deal with bursitis resurfacing all season.
“It’s still going to be sore the whole year, I feel like,” Harper said. “But daily, it’s getting better. I have no pain, which is good. I’m a little sore everywhere else, but that’s common. It’s good to have no pain finally. To run with zero pain is going to feel great. I’m feeling better every day. I’m just trying to do things the right way so that things go well when I get back.”
The visit to Andrews helped set Harper’s mind at ease. He plans to visit Andrews again at the end of the season to re-evaluate his knee.
“That really helped out a lot, being able to go to a doctor that is really high up there and knows what he’s talking about and has a lot of experience,” Harper said. “He really helped me calm down and not worry about anything. He told me I had no structural damage or anything like that. It’s a painful experience going through what you’re going through. He understood that. That was good. He just calmed me down a lot. He told me you might be in pain the rest of the year, you might not.”
For now, Harper plans on taking the end of his rehab slowly, so as to not undo the rest and improvement he has felt over the past month.
“I’m full speed, every single day,” Harper said. “It’s going to be hard playing at 70 percent if they want me to play at 70 percent. I’m not going to do that. I want to come back 100 percent and get back as quick as I can.”
Though Johnson said yesterday that Harper would likely start his rehab assignment Tuesday, Harper wants to wait until Wednesday at the earliest, and will only begin once he feels ready. “If I feel good, then I’ll go play,” Harper said. “If I feel something isn’t right, then I’m not going to go play. It depends on how I’m feeling.”
Johnson still said he hopes Harper will start his rehab assignment Tuesday. The Nationals have struggled without Harper, who is hitting .287/.386/.587 and would provide a lethargic offense one of the most powerful bats in the majors. Johnson wants Harper’s bat back in the lineup with as little delay as possible.
“All this stuff here, the right turns and the left turns in the outfield, hitting the base and all that, that doesn’t mean anything,” Johnson said. “What matters is, can you run out there, catch fly balls, come back in and go hit, and how that’s going to affect the knee. Bursitis, I’ve had it, I think everybody’s had it that has played the game. I’ve had my knee drained and had shots and they’re unpredictable. A lot of times you can play on them. The only thing really uncomfortable is the swelling, more than anything. But if we do anything, we’re going to err on the caution side.
“I trust players, too. They know more about their body than the medical staff. But when you come back from injury, are you ever 100 percent? But the body has a wonderful ability to heal itself. The more you get the blood flowing, the more you have to heal. Let’s get off the DL, guys.”
Whenever Harper starts his rehab assignment, he plans to take his time. Yesterday, he told Johnson his swing felt “terrible” after his layoff. He does not think he would be able to compete at his usual standard after only two or three games.
“I want to get my timing back,” Harper said. “I don’t want to come back one game after I play against high-A ball and come back facing [Zack] Wheeler and Matt Harvey or something. I’m not going to face those guys. They’d blow me away right now. That’s something I don’t want to do. I’m going play as many games as I can down there, see how I feel, and try and get back.”
Johnson disagreed with Harper’s assessment. He feels players regain timing more quickly in the majors than minors, where pitchers have worse command and different plans to attack hitters.
“The thing most I’m concerned about is, is he going to be able to bounce back after playing a nine-inning game?” Johnson said. “He’s probably worried about timing and everything being letter-perfect. All that changes from if you’re in Potomac. You may never get your timing there because it’s a whole new ballgame there – guys don’t have command as well as they do up here, and there’s a big variation in how they pitch to guys. So I’m more concerned about just how they recover from when they come off the DL than I am about what they hit. Since he’s never really been on the DL or done rehab, I think his concept might be different from mine.”
He’s right about that – Harper and Johnson certainly appear to have different concepts about coming off the disabled list.