Bryce Harper took to the field at Nationals Park on Saturday morning to do some running and outfield drills under the watchful eyes of trainers. It was another day in his progress toward returning from bursitis in his left knee. And while it seems like the Nationals’ outfielder is getting close to returning, saying he has “no pain” in his knee anymore, it remains unclear exactly when that return will come.
On Friday, manager Davey Johnson said he hoped Harper would be ready to begin a rehab assignment on Tuesday with Single-A Potomac, and the manager estimated that it would not take very many games before he would feel comfortable activating Harper.
But Harper said Saturday that may be a bit ambitious, and he has no plans to rush through a rehab assignment.
“Tuesday, that’s kind of early,” Harper said. “I’m thinking Wednesday or Thursday maybe. I’m not sure. We’ll see how I feel. If I feel good, then I’ll go play. If I feel something isn’t right, then I’m not going to go play. It depends on how I’m feeling.
“I would like to be at six or seven games (on rehab assignment),” Harper said. “I want to get my timing back. I don’t want to come back one game after I play against High-A ball and come back facing (hard-throwing Mets starters Zach) Wheeler and Matt Harvey or something. 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.”
Harper has been dealing with swelling and inflammation in his left knee since he crashed into the right field wall at Dodger Stadium on May 13. He did not succumb to the disabled list, though, until May 26 after he aggravated the issue by sliding on his knee.
Throughout the early part of his healing process, the Nationals had a hard time keeping Harper from trying to rush his recovery, but now Harper seems to be intent on not coming back before he feels fully ready.
“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.
“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.”
Johnson, however, seemed to have a bit of a different idea about Harper’s rehab assignment.
The manager is mostly concerned with how Harper’s knee and the rest of his body responds to playing in games again, and playing nine innings. He has said on multiple occasions he is not concerned with Harper’s timing, as much as he is simply getting him healthy enough to return.
“When a player starts playing, it’s really up to me, what I think they need. Not up to the player,” Johnson said Saturday. “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. The most I’m concerned about is is he going to be able to bounce back after playing a nine-inning game.
“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.”
In Johnson’s view, Harper can continue to do all sorts of different activities here at Nationals Park to test his knee, but until he plays in a game and sees how it responds he won’t truly progress. That’s why Johnson hoped Harper would be ready to go on rehab assignment on Tuesday.
“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.
“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? No. The body has a wonderful ability to heal itself. The more you get the blood flowing, the more you have to heal.”
The problem for Harper is that the nature of his injury means that it could return without warning if he impacts his knee the wrong way while playing.
“Bursitis, it could come back with one slide,” Johnson said. “It could come back bumping into the wall. But is it going to get any worse from regular playing? That’s the only thing I have concern with… We’re going to make sure that what he does and anything he does with baseball activities doesn’t set him back. That’s my main concern. As far as his timing, he probably has got better timing than some of the guys in the lineup right now.”
Harper said his visit with Dr. James Andrews on June 11, during which he received a cortisone shot and a platelet-rich plasma injection in the knee to help combat the inflammation, served to give him some peace of mind. The issue, however, is one that the outfielder may have to deal with throughout the year — and Andrews told him as much.
“He really helped me calm down and not worry about anything,” Harper said of Andrews. “He told me I had no structural damage or anything like that but ‘It’s a painful experience going through what you’re going through.’ He understood that… (But) he told me ‘You might be in pain the rest of the year, you might not. We’ll see how everything goes. If everything goes good, we’ll check it at the end of the season and see how it feels.’”
If Harper does rehab for six or seven games, he will likely have to continue his rehab with Single-A Hagerstown, because Single-A Potomac — which has a lot of the players Harper played with when he was in Hagerstown in 2011 — is going on the road after Thursday’s game. That would reunite Harper with his brother, Bryan, who is pitching for Hagerstown.
“I’m really excited to play for Potomac, actually,” Harper said. “Being able to go back and play with the team I played with for Hagerstown will be a lot of fun. Of course I want to play in the big leagues. I don’t want to be down there. But it would be a great experience to be with them again. Playing with my brother would be a great experience, too.”