Harper hitless in return but ‘excited to be back’

Harper hitless in return but 'excited to be back'

LOS ANGELES — Bryce Harper’s historically quick return from Tommy John surgery has raised questions about timing, particularly his ability to catch up with major league pitching after focusing so much on rehabilitation over the past five months.

Another type of timing presented an obstacle.

Harper used his allotted time-out during a two-strike count in his first at-bat against the Los Angeles Dodgers, then again on a two-strike count in his second at-bat, and then again before even getting the first pitch in his third saw. Harper, famous for his routine between and in front of the courts, didn’t just play in his first game of the season on Tuesday night. He played with a pitch clock in his first game, one of several new regulations introduced for the 2023 season. It will take some getting used to.

“Your whole life, your whole career, you’ve always slowed down the game,” Harper said after the Philadelphia Phillies’ 13-1 loss at Dodger Stadium. “It took me a lot of time from the circle on the deck to the batter’s box. And it also took me a while between pitches. So definitely an adjustment period. I just need to figure that out – figure out what I want to do, how I want to do it, use my downtime when I need to, and understand that the game is going to pick up speed for the foreseeable future.”

Harper, who batted third while serving as the designated hitter, went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts for the second straight night the Dodgers hit 13 runs against the Phillies’ pitchers.

It was an unspectacular return, but also a particularly challenging one.

Harper’s first appearance came in a left-on-left match against Julio Urias, who had the lowest ERA in the National League last season. Urias primarily attacked Harper with breaking balls that swam away from him, most of which either fouled or penetrated Harper. Harper puffed with a 1-2 curveball low and outside in his first at-bat, then landed with a check-swing tapper in his second and swung through a 1-2 cutter wide out in his third. His fourth at-bat to start the ninth inning of a 12-run deficit against right-hander Phil Bickford landed him three shots, the last of which was a foul tip on an inside corner cutter.

Phillies manager Rob Thomson believes Harper’s racquet speed was solid and that he was “up a lot of places” even when the results didn’t materialize.

“I was excited — excited to come back, excited to be back,” Harper said. “But not the game we wanted, right? We just have to keep going, keep going. I have a feeling it’s the seat selection. And it will level things out; it gets better. I just have to give him some time.”

A reasonable assessment. Just 160 days ago, on November 23, Harper underwent surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. The initial prediction called for a return after the All-Star break, but Harper has targeted that streak — from Dodger Stadium, where he made his major league debut 11 years ago — as his goal. It propelled him through his rehab and gave him something to chase after. According to research from ESPN Stats & Information, he surpassed the original timeline by more than two months and returned from the Tommy John operation faster than any other baseball player.

“Obviously he’s not throwing a baseball, but he’s swinging a baseball bat at full speed,” said Phillies, who beat coach Kevin Long. “It’s a remarkable achievement and I think 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 mushroom racket from the Phillies’ spring training complex in Clearwater, Florida. Over the course of about six weeks, Harper and Long made progress through tee work, soft toss, traditional hitting practice, swinging from a high-speed pitching machine, and live-at-bats. Earning the equivalent of 50 at-bats against either rehabbing pitchers or minor league pitchers in recent weeks, Harper opted for controlled environments rather than venturing into a traditional rehab assignment.

Harper received final clearance from Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who performed his surgery. Thomson had decided to let Harper off that night anyway, and was reluctant to start him the next day with such a tough matchup in Urias, a perennial Cy Young contender. But Harper, he said, wanted it.

“He wants to play,” added Thomson. “He’s dying to play.”

Harper was noticeably aggressive on his return, hitting on the first pitch each of the four times he got to batting. He will return to the lineup for Wednesday’s series finale, a day game, and is expected to play regularly as the Phillies begin this month with four days off in a three-week period. Eventually, once his shot progression reaches a certain point, he’ll switch to first base. But that development is months away. Right now, the Phillies just need his bat in the lineup.

“I want the results to be better,” Harper said of his first second leg. “But admittedly, I’m looking forward to being back. After six months of grinding, hard work and the fact that I can be back today I was very excited.”

Harper spent most of the 2022 season nursing a tear in his right UCL and serving as the Phillies’ DH, where he batted .296/.368/.522 and then four go-aheads in 90 regular-season games -Home runs scored an epic postseason run culminating in a World Series appearance. That year, however, Harper ranked 11th out of 376 hitters in the slowest pace between pitches with empty bases as measured by Baseball Savant. In other words, it took him a long time in the batter’s box.

Now, in a new fold, he’ll 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.”

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