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May 02, 2023

A timeline of Bryce Harper's impossibly fast return from Tommy John surgery

Bryce Harper is about to return from an injury and resulting surgery faster than anyone in baseball. A look back at how it all happened:

Bryce Harper swung the bat with a partial UCL tear nearly all of last season then finally underwent Tommy John surgery in late November to address it. 

With an injury like that, and a resulting procedure like that, a marathon of a recovery process lied ahead of him, and the Phillies – and most fans – were prepared for their NLCS MVP to miss a significant chunk of 2023 as a result. 

But Harper saw the course and somehow, someway, sprinted right through it. 

He'll be in the lineup as the Phillies' designated hitter Tuesday night against the Dodgers, medically cleared and just 160 days removed from a surgery that often takes baseball players upwards of a year to come back from. 

Impossible, right? Yet Harper could finally say he was always gunning for it. 

“It’s a month into the season,” Harper told's Todd Zolecki on Monday. “I just think, really, having five months to play this game, I mean, it helps everybody on this field. It felt like I could have been back two weeks ago, possibly. Anytime before that July mark, I was trying to push for. I was very happy that we were able to get to this point."

But Harper's return Tuesday night doesn't exist in a vacuum. It goes all the way back to a throw home last April and an injury both he and the Phillies have been trying to navigate ever since, through a late postseason push, a miraculous run to the World Series, and a winter and spring spent gearing up to try and get back. 

He'll be there to help them go for it again, and here's a timeline charting the road it took to get here:

March 10, 2022: After a winter-long lockout, Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association agree to a new collective bargaining agreement. The new CBA introduces a universal designated hitter, a decision that would be loathed by baseball purists but prove to be a godsend for the Phillies.

April 11, 2022: While facing the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park, Harper makes a throw home and then grabs his right elbow in clear discomfort. A flexor strain is the initial diagnosis. He remains in the field and tries to power through.

April 16, 2022: A 10-3 win down in Miami and the last time Harper takes right field. Throwing causes pain but swinging a bat doesn't. He begins settling into the DH role.

May 13, 2022: Out of the field for nearly a month, Harper has his right elbow looked at again which reveals a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL). He's shut down from throwing for at least a few weeks but is able to continue on as the Phillies' designated hitter.

May 17, 2022: Harper receives a platelet-rich plasma injection in his right elbow and misses a handful of games. He returns as the DH on May 21 against the Dodgers. Since the UCL is only partially torn, he and the Phillies opt to try and let the injury heal naturally with hope that the PRP injection could possibly speed things up, as going for surgery would shut the reigning NL MVP down entirely.

June 25, 2022: Out in San Diego, a pitch from Blake Snell runs high and inside and catches Harper's left thumb. He crumples over in pain and exits the game alongside training staff. The next couple of days confirms that the thumb is broken and will require surgery. Harper, the best bat in the Phillies' lineup and at a time when they really couldn't afford to lose him, is out indefinitely, though he vows to return before the end of the regular season.

August 3, 2022: With the pins removed from his surgically-repaired thumb and a solid month of downtime, Harper begins taking swings again and also starts a throwing program tied to his rehab from the UCL tear. He is able to have light catches from 55-60 feet out, which lends some hope that he might be able to return to the outfield soon.

“There’s no guarantee of that, but we’re hoping that that’s how it plays out,” then interim manager Rob Thomson told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “We’ll work that throwing program, progress him out to where he can throw 100% — or close to it — and then we can get him out there.”

August 9, 2022: That hope is short-lived. Harper's recovery from the broken thumb was moving along and inching closer to him coming back to DH, but the throwing program produced elbow stiffness, which led the Phillies to back off of it. The UCL wasn't healing. Right field was off the table again.

From the archives: A doctor explains Harper's UCL injury

August 26, 2022: After progressing back to batting practice and then a dominant rehab assignment in Triple-A Lehigh Valley that was cut short after just two games – because he was clearly ready – Harper returns to the Phillies' lineup as the designated hitter for a weekend series against Pittsburgh, well ahead of the initial September return goal (this will set a precedent for later). He hits a two-run single in his first plate appearance back, causing the Citizens Bank Park crowd to erupt with the Phils in the midst of a postseason push.

October 3, 2022: The Phillies beat the Astros down in Houston 3-0 to clinch the National League's final Wild Card spot and set up for what would become a miraculous run to the World Series, one sparked by numerous postseason heroics from Harper, including the biggest of them all:

The universal DH proved a godsend.

November 16, 2022: The postseason run of a lifetime ended right where it began in heartbreak, with the Phillies losing the World Series to the Astros in six games. In the aftermath came speculation about how Harper and the Phillies would address the partial UCL tear in his elbow, which was still there after all this time. Club president Dave Dombrowski eventually confirmed that Harper would undergo surgery, but wouldn't go into the details on the extent of it other than it would be performed by Dr. Neal ElAttrache out in California and would likely cause Harper to miss part of the 2023 season.

"At this point, we'll have something at that time with the surgery in the anticipation that something will happen," Dombrowski said. "I would think it will slow him down for the season, but we'll know more next week."

November 23, 2022: Harper undergoes successful Tommy John surgery to repair the UCL. The Phillies' initial estimate is that he'll return as the designated hitter around the All-Star break midsummer, with the chance of possibly playing right field again toward the end of the regular season.

March 9, 2023: Harper reports to Clearwater for spring training. He says he's taking dry swings, is able to get his workouts in, and generally looks to be trending upward in his recovery. But he's trying to stay patient and not rush through his rehab.

"I got a long ways to go," Harper said. "Just trying to take it day by day, be grateful for the day that I'm in, grateful for the workout that I'm doing or that next step, just really trying to hit every mark, hit every step, and go from there."

March 21, 2023: Harper's recovery is progressing well as the spring nears its end, well enough to the point where the Phillies decide not to place him on the 60-day injured list to begin the season, leaving all options open in the event that he just might be able to come back before that initial All-Star break estimate.

"The idea when you look at this is that we're not going to put him on the emergency injured list, which would keep him out until May 29 because we're going to keep our options open that, hopefully, he comes back," Dombrowski told 94 WIP. "But he's doing great, absolutely tremendous."

March 23, 2023: In a late spring exhibition, Rhys Hoskins tears his ACL fielding a routine ground ball. He'll be out for likely all of the 2023 regular season, creating a massive hole at first base.

April 3, 2023: During the opening series finale against the Rangers down in Arlington, Harper tells ESPN that he started going through his routine in the batting cage again about a week and a half before. Now full-time manager Rob Thomson adds that the Phillies expects Harper to begin hitting from the field when they return to South Philly for their home-opening series against the Reds starting April 6.

"Still got a minute to go," Harper told ESPN (via NBC Sports Philadelphia). "Just trying to be smart about it, understanding my good days are going to be good and some days I'll just be sore and it'll be a little tougher. But I feel good right now, just got to keep that going and keep doing the same stuff."

April 5, 2023: Harper beats that expectation by a day (setting more precedent), taking batting practice for the first time since his surgery while the Phillies are up in the Bronx to play the Yankees. He's moving fast, and it's revealed that swinging the bat isn't the problem, more so what could happen if Harper slides the wrong way while running the bases.

”He feels great,” Thomson told The Inquirer. “And it’s not hitting that we’re concerned about. It’s sliding. We’ve got to get clearance from the doctor on that one first. If he slides headfirst he could rupture (the elbow). And then we’re back to square one.”

April 7, 2023: After the threat of rain pushed the home opener back a day, the Phillies returned to Citizens Bank Park, and right on cue, Harper was at the plate beforehand taking batting practice. At this point, the Phillies haven't moved off the All-Star break timeframe, but the swing looked good, and Harper sure did seem to be moving along faster than maybe anyone could've expected.

April 11, 2023: Baserunning and sliding remain the big hangups, but Harper keeps taking swings, and if you ask Rob Thomson, he looks ready to at least take live minor-league at-bats.

"I would say yes," Thomson said (via KYW). "He's done a lot of hitting."

Harper is also seen with a glove fielding ground balls around first base, though Thomson plays it off as him just keeping his fielding skills up.

April 12, 2023: Actually, Harper is trying to learn first base. With Hoskins out, it couldn't hurt.

April 18, 2023: Harper takes live batting practice against Ranger Suárez in Chicago.

April 21, 2023: With the Phillies back home to face the Rockies, Harper continues to take live batting practice, is seen catching throws from Trea Turner and Bryson Stott at first, and even begins throwing again from 60 feet out.

At this point, it's clear that Harper is speedrunning through his rehab and fully intends to return well ahead of the initial All-Star break projection.

He's making use of Trajekt Arc, an advanced AI pitching machine capable of replicating the deliveries of any major-league arm, within the tunnels of Citizens Bank Park, and is hitting in simulated games off Suárez and minor-league arms brought in by the club with the pitch clock on to get a feel for it. Since he can only be the designated hitter when he's cleared to come back, both he and the Phillies feel this is enough to bypass a minor-league assignment entirely.

And with all that in mind, Thomson makes mention of a follow-up with Dr. ElAttrache at the beginning of May when the Phillies were scheduled to be out West.

“If we get clearance from the doctor, we’ll see when he can start DH’ing,” Thomson said (via The Inquirer). “But it shouldn’t be too far after that.”

April 26, 2023: With a May 1 doctor's visit looming, Thomson told 94 WIP that head-first sliding is really the only hurdle left to clear before Harper can return to DH. If Dr. ElAttrache clears him for that at the visit, it wouldn't be long after that Harper's at the plate in-game, setting up for a return in less than six months out from the November surgery – a procedure that usually takes players an entire year or more to recover from.


"It really is," Thomson told WIP. "It's a testament to him and our training staff because he's worked extremely hard. If it happens when it happens, he's gonna be one of the quickest if not the quickest guy back from this injury in history."

April 30, 2023: The night before the appointment, with the Phillies in Houston wrapping up a World Series rematch against the Astros, reports begin coming in that if Harper does get cleared, he could be back in the lineup as soon as Tuesday night against the Dodgers out in Los Angeles.

May 1, 2023: And Harper broke the news himself after the visit with Dr. ElAttrache presumably happened and he got the okay.

"Aye Pham. You ready?" he wrote on Instagram.

May 2, 2023: The Phillies post their lineup. Harper is back and batting third.

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