As the Washington Nationals sweated through batting practice on a muggy D.C. afternoon on Friday, a Sports Illustrated report began to circulate saying that Bryce Harper’s stiff neck may be something more serious, tied to a preexisting shoulder injury he dealt with for two months. Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo was made aware of the report, and immediately headed from the field to the clubhouse. A few minutes later, he emerged into the sweltering dugout, fiery in his denial that Harper’s injury was anything other than the stiff neck that he and Manager Dusty Baker have said it was all along.
“He hasn’t had a right shoulder injury,” Rizzo said. “He’s got a stiff neck that we’ve been treating — yes with cupping, yes with [massage therapy], like 14 or 15 other players on the team on a routine basis like we always do. The report is inaccurate.”
Rizzo said he had just spoken to Harper and “confirmed it with the training staff, medical staff and the player.” He said if the neck was a “DL-warranted injury, [Harper] would be on the DL.” Despite being out of the Nationals lineup for the fourth straight game, which means he has not played since last Saturday, Harper was not on the disabled list as of just before game time Friday.
“He’s day-to-day,” Rizzo said. “I have a low level of concern.”
Wednesday, Harper said he did not have much of an update, just that his neck was feeling the same as it had been, but that he was not at the point of needing time on the disabled list yet. Before batting practice Friday, Baker said Harper was “better,” but they “decided to keep him out another day.” As for his availability off the bench Friday night, Baker was not sure of Harper’s status at that time.
“The chiropractor’s going to come in and see him,” Baker said. “and we’ll see after that.”
Harper was not in the clubhouse during the time it was open to reporters before the game, and did not warm up or play catch on the field before batting practice. As of Wednesday, he was still testing his ability to swing. A person familiar with the situation indicated that Harper is, indeed, battling some combination of neck and shoulder trouble, though did not speak to the presence of a preexisting injury. Necks and shoulders, of course, exist in close proximity and are related parts of the kinetic chain. A stiff neck, therefore, could be expected to cause immobility or discomfort at the base of the neck and in the shoulder, which would not necessarily indicate any other structural issue with that shoulder joint itself.
The Sports Illustrated report included specific types of treatment being used to treat the shoulder — including cupping, recently of Michael Phelps fame — which is a common treatment for players. The right side of Harper’s neck has shown signs of that treatment lately, though as Rizzo said in his vehement denial of any big problem, a handful of Nationals show those same signs daily. Baker has said his training staff is trying to “alleviate a spasm,” all of which makes sense as treatment for a stiff neck.
But the question of whether or not Harper might have been dealing with a longer-term issue is a reasonable one given the extent of his struggles this season: A year after turning in one of the best offensive seasons in baseball history, Harper is struggling. His average is nearly 100 points below where he finished last year. His power, exit velocity, and other indicators are down. After an explosive April, Harper fell into a months-long slump that has reached proportions unprecedented in his young career. He has dealt with nicks, like a quad issue that bothered him before the all-star break, and missed two games with a knee contusion after being hit by a pitch in late May. For what it’s worth, Harper has repeated the phrase “I feel good” dozens of times throughout the slump. But could something subtle be lingering?
“I trust that he’s healthy because he tells me he’s healthy,” Rizzo said. “When he says he’s not 100 percent, we treat him like we’ve treated him the last couple days.”