"I sprinted for the first time about three weeks ago. That was awesome," 21-year-old Washington Nationals' outfielder Bryce Harper told reporters Saturday afternoon in an interview from NatsFest at the Gaylord Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, when he was asked for an update on his progress following surgery to debride and repair the injured bursa sac in his left knee. After an injury-plagued 2013 season in which he missed a month on the DL and after which he had surgery, Harper said he's finally pain-free and ready to go even if he's not 100% at the start of Spring Training. Right now he's just happy that his knee finally feels good.
"No pain," Harper said. "Being able to hit with no pain and run with no pain is a lot of fun. I haven't hit with no pain for about a year. So it's not very fun to go through a year, a year-and-a-half of pain. You know you're going to have your ups and downs, you're going to play through pain, but it was something that I didn't like doing and it didn't feel very good. So being able to hit, being able to run, being able to chuck baseballs and things like that, it's been a great offseason. It's a lot of fun to be able to do not hurt."
Wait. "A year, a year-and-a-half"? Was he just talking about pain in his knee? Did his initial problems with burisitis go back a year and more?
When a reporter noted that if Harper's knee was an issue for that long it would mean the issue went back before the first of two collisions he had with outfield walls he had last season, when Harper was thought to have originally injured the knee, the outfielder repeated what he'd said.
"Yeah. It's been about a year."
Harper didn't offer any information about the origins of the injury, but he did say he's not sure he'll be 100% at the start of Spring Training. "It's going well right now," Harper said. "Just getting rehab three times a week. Day and night. Trying to get back to full strength and we'll see where I can get by Spring Training and see if I can go through Spring Training and get to 100% by the time the season starts and see where I'm at."
"I'm going to go through my rehab like I need to and see where I am," Harper said. Dealing with the injury issues he had last year is not something the young outfielder wants to relive. "Hopefully I don't have to go through that again," he told reporters. "I don't like getting hurt. I like being on the field. I like playing."
While he was happy to be pain-free and joking with reporters, Harper kept returning to the fact that he might no be ready to go full-on at the start of Spring Training. "Like I said, it's all about how I feel in rehab and how I feel that day. And if it's not feeling very well, if it isn't reacting very well, then I'll take a day off."
"Right now he's on track in his rehab," Matt Williams said in his own conversation with reporters at NatsFest. "So, again, we'll look at that when he gets down there. I have the task of making sure that he gets enough ABs and we give him enough rest during the course of Spring Training so he'll be ready for Opening Day. So that being said, it's kind of fluid at this point, because we just don't know. If he goes out there and plays six innings, we don't know how he's going to react. So we'll have to evaluate that every day. But the challenge is that we get him enough that he's ready to go."
Will the Nationals get Harper to hold back and avoid running into any more walls?
Williams said that the way Harper plays, some of that is unavoidable.
"He's going to run into walls," the Nats' new skipper joked. "It's going to happen. But luckily, they're padded and I just hope he doesn't damage the stadium when he does. But he has to play the way he plays. You can't take his aggressiveness away from him, because he's always played that way. So what we need to do is maybe be a little bit smarter. Position him in a spot where he can get to a ball where he doesn't have to run into a wall or get him to the fence and let him find it to be able to make a play. So that's our job as a staff, but I'm not going to put a harness on him and say, 'You can't do that,' because that's the way he plays. We'll do some things in Spring Training that will help him to get to a point where he feels more comfortable."
Harper was taking everything in stride. When asked what he learned from what had to be a trying second season in the majors, the Nats' outfielder had a simple answer for reporters. He learned one important thing.
"I like hitting walk-off home runs," Harper said.
He hit his first walk-off home run last season to beat the Pirates on July 25th and 19 other home runs on the year, all while playing with an injured knee. Harper finished his second major league season with a .274/.368/.486 line, 24 doubles and 20 HRs in 118 games and 497 plate appearances over which he was worth +3.8 fWAR.
A healthy Harper is a scary proposition for opposing pitchers.
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