WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Just before 10 a.m. Sunday, a player rushed over to Field 2 on the Washington Nationals’ side of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. He jogged alone, his spikes pounding the sidewalk. A boy stood nearby behind a fence, observing the start of the Nationals’ final workout before position players report for spring training. He couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw Harper spelled out on the back of the player’s red jersey.
“I just saw Harper!” the young boy called out.
“That’s not Bryce,” a man responded. “That’s his brother.”
“What?” the boy said, confused. “No way.”
Such is the baseball life of Bryan Harper, Bryce’s older brother and a reliever competing to establish his own name at the sport’s highest level. While Bryce became one of the majors’ brightest stars in a near instant, Bryan, 28, is in his first big-league camp this spring after five on the minor league side. He’s seeking to resurrect his career following Tommy John surgery.
“Just being on the mound, just being back out there, is so much fun,” Harper said. “It had been so long.”
Taken in the 30th round of the 2011 draft — after being drafted twice before — the 6-foot-5 left-hander spent five full seasons steadily progressing through Washington’s farm system. In 2016, after posting a 1.50 ERA with Harrisburg, he ascended to Class AAA Syracuse and compiled a 2.95 ERA in 20 games. He was on the big leagues’ doorstep.
Then, on Aug. 6, he fired a fastball against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre that didn’t feel right. He threw another pitch to get out of the inning, but something was wrong. He tried throwing when he returned the next day, but it was too painful. An MRI later revealed a torn ulnar collateral ligament. He initially tried the rehab route and received a platelet-rich plasma injection, but decided to undergo Tommy John surgery. His 2016 season was over. His 2017 season was over before it began.
“When that happens, you just got to kind of sit back and just look at it and accept it,” Harper said. “There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s your body. Your body just literally quit on you.”
Harper resumed throwing five months after the procedure last April. By August, he was throwing bullpens and simulated games. He kept in constant communication with his brother throughout. The two would communicate between Bryan’s morning workouts and Bryce’s games at night, Bryan keeping him updated on his progress and milestones before watching the Nationals play.
“I was watching every night and I actually learned a lot,” Bryan Harper said. “It wasn’t even watching him. It was watching Max [Scherzer] and [Stephen Strasburg] and watching those guys pitch, seeing what they do and picking up things.”
Harper started his offseason work in December — earlier than usual — and was throwing bullpens again by the third week of January. He has thrown two bullpens since reporting to camp and has been encouraged by his ability to bounce back the day after the sessions.
“Excellent. His arm strength’s good, and his command is getting better,” Nationals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said. “He’s got a nice breaking ball. His fastball’s got some good shape to it. We’ve just got to get him into games and get him comfortable.”
Harper is one of several relievers vying for a couple spots in Washington’s bullpen. The competition is steep on the left side; besides closer Sean Doolittle, Sammy Solis, Enny Romero, and Matt Grace played roles for the Nationals last year and figure to have the leg up on the rest of the bunch.
Excluding Bryce’s brief rehab assignment with Class AA Harrisburg in 2014, this is the first time the brothers will share a clubhouse since they played in junior college together in 2010. As kids, they dreamed of playing in the big leagues together. This season may be their last chance, at least in Washington, with Bryce Harper’s looming free agency. But now, after 214 2/3 innings across 168 games for six affiliates and an inopportune setback, Bryan Harper just wants to reach the summit and make a name for himself.
“The biggest goal,” Harper said, “is just to make the big leagues.”