Alden GonzalezESPN Writer5 minute read
LOS ANGELES — Bryce Harper’s historically quick return from Tommy John surgery has led to questions about the schedule, particularly his ability to catch up with the major league pitcher after spending much of the last five months concentrating mainly on rehabilitation.
Another type of timing presented an obstacle.
Harper used his designated timeout on a two-strike count on his first at-bat against the Los Angeles Dodgers, then again on a two-strike count on his second at-bat, then again before even see the first pitch of his third. Harper, notoriously deliberate with his between-and-before-pitch routine, wasn’t just playing his first game of the season on Tuesday night. He was playing his first game with a pitch clock, one of many new regulations introduced for the 2023 season. It’s going to take some getting used to.
“All your life, all your career, you’ve always slowed down the game,” Harper said after the Philadelphia Phillies’ 13-1 loss to Dodger Stadium. “I put a lot of time from the circle on the deck to the batter’s box. And also between pitches I was taking a while. So definitely an adjustment period. I just have to figure that out – figure out what I’m want to do, how I want to do it, use my downtime when I need to and understand that the game is going to be faster for the foreseeable future.”
Harper, who hit third while serving as the designated hitter, went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts in what was the second straight night the Dodgers scored 13 runs against the Phillies pitchers.
It was an unceremonious return but also a particularly difficult one.
Harper’s first assignment came in a left-on-left matchup against Julio Urias, who had the lowest ERA in the National League last season. Urias attacked Harper largely with breaking balls flying away from him, most of which Harper either fouled or swung. Harper felt a 1-2 curveball low and wide on his first at bat, then grounded on a check-swing tapper in his second and swung a 1-2 cutter well outside in his third. His fourth at bat, to lead the ninth inning of a 12-run deficit against right-hander Phil Bickford, saw him make three hits, the last of which was a bad pass on an inside corner cutter.
Phillies manager Rob Thomson thinks Harper’s batting speed was good and he was “on a lot of ground” even though the results didn’t materialize.
“I was excited — excited to be back, excited to be back,” Harper said. “But that’s not the game we wanted to have, is it? You just have to keep going, keep going. I feel like it’s the selection of the pitch. And that’s going to even things out; It’ll get better. You just have to give it some time.”
It’s an understandable assessment. Just 160 days ago, on Nov. 23, Harper underwent surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. The original prognosis had him back after the All-Star break, but Harper has set his sights on this series — Dodger Stadium, the spot where he made his major league debut 11 years ago — as his target. It fueled him through rehab, gave him something to chase. He beat the original schedule by more than two months and ended up coming back from Tommy John surgery faster than any recorded baseball player, according to a study by ESPN Stats & Information.
“Obviously he’s not throwing a baseball, but he’s swinging a baseball bat at full speed,” Phillies batting coach Kevin Long said. “It’s a remarkable feat, and I guess it’s another chapter in Bryce Harper’s life.”
The process began in early March, with two sets of 10 dry swings with a much lighter fungo bat from the Phillies’ spring training facility in Clearwater, Florida. Over the course of about six weeks, Harper and Long progressed through tee work, soft pitching, traditional batting practice, swings on a high-speed pitching machine, and live batting. Harper has received the equivalent of 50 at-bats against rehab or minor league pitchers in recent weeks, opting for controlled environments instead of venturing into a traditional rehab mission.
Harper received final clearance from Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who performed her surgery, in Los Angeles on Monday. Thomson had decided to give Harper that night regardless and was reluctant to kick him off with such a tough matchup at Cy Young’s perennial competitor Urias the next day. But Harper, he said, wanted it.
“He wants to play,” Thomson added. “He can’t wait to play.”
Harper was remarkably aggressive on his return, swinging on the first pitch each of the four times he came up to bat. He will return to the roster for Wednesday’s series finale, a one-day game, and should play regularly given the Phillies start this month with four days off over a three-week span. Eventually, once his throwing progress reaches a certain point, he will move on to first base. But that development is still months away. For now, the Phillies just need his bat in the lineup.
“I want the results to be better,” Harper said of his first game back. “But okay, I’m thrilled to be back. After six months of hard work and hard work, and being able to come back today, I was extremely excited.”
Harper spent the vast majority of the 2022 season nursing a tear in his right UCL and serving as the Phillies’ DH, batting .296/.368/.522 in 90 games there during the regular season, then hitting four shots circuit into an epic playoff run that culminated in a World Series appearance. That year, however, Harper ranked 11th among 376 slowest-paced batters between pitches with empty bases, as measured by Baseball Savant. In other words, he put a lot of time in the batting box.
Now, in a new wrinkle, it will have a pitch clock to work against.
“It’s going to be an adjustment for me,” Harper said. “But it is what it is at this point.”