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April 26, 2023

Phillies injuries: A pivotal doctor's visit for Bryce Harper is coming up

Bryce Harper will see Dr. Neal ElAttrache at the start of May, and if he's cleared, he could be back as the Phillies' DH within six months of having Tommy John surgery.

May 1 could quickly become one of the biggest days of the Phillies' season. 

Bryce Harper has been swinging the bat for a while now, seeing live pitching almost every day before games. He's fielding ground balls and taking in throws at first base to try and learn the position, he is finally throwing again, and he's been doing baserunning drills where he can slide feet first. 

It's just head-first sliding that remains the immediate danger to his surgically repaired UCL and the last big hurdle to clear. 

But he'll see Dr. Neal ElAttrache – baseball's top orthopedic surgeon who performed Harper's Tommy John surgery back in the fall – in Los Angeles at the beginning of the month, Phillies manager Rob Thomson told 94 WIP Wednesday morning, and if the NLCS MVP gets the all clear, it won't be long after when he'll be back in a game as the club's designated hitter. 

Harper had the surgery in late November. His return, from a procedure that sometimes takes an entire year to recover from, looks increasingly like it'll be in the first half of May.

That's less than six months. Unreal. 

"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."

Fingers crossed, Phils fans. 

What we know for sure is that once Harper does get cleared, a rehab assignment in Lehigh Valley won't fall between that and his return to the Phillies' lineup. He isn't interested in a minor-league stint and, over time, the club grew to feel the same. 

Hitting off Trajekt Arc, an advanced AI pitching machine capable of replicating the deliveries of any major league arm, has been a huge part of Harper's rehab and so has live batting practice and simulated games with the pitch clock while facing Ranger Suárez – who is also nearing a return from injury – and other minor league arms the club brought in, all while remaining with the team. 

Since he'll be a DH only when he comes back, there's increasing confidence in having him just jump right in. 

“If he goes on a rehab, does it mean he’ll be better?” Phillies hitting coach Kevin Long told The Athletic's Matt Gelb. “I just don’t see the importance of it as much as maybe other people do. So, I’m kind of with Harp on this one. I don’t know what to expect. I’m going to say that he’s going to be a little rusty. Because then we have a buffer. You know what I mean? But it wouldn’t surprise me if in the first game he hit two homers.”

Suárez set for Reading

Ranger Suárez will require a rehab assignment, however. 

Before the Phillies faced the Mariners Tuesday night in the first of a three-game series, Thomson said Suárez is set to begin his assignment Thursday in Double-A Reading and should make around 3-4 starts to ramp back up. 

"For me, I'd like to get him to 90 or 100 (pitches) so that he can come back and have a regular start," Thomson said (via NBC Sports Philadelphia).

The 27-year-old lefthander, who didn't pitch at all through the spring because of an elbow strain, has progressed well through bullpen sessions and can offer a much-needed boost to the Phillies' rotation once he's back. 

As the third starter for the majority of last season, Suárez went 10-7 with a 3.65 ERA and a 1.333 WHIP in 155.1 innings pitched.

He could slide in behind Taijuan Walker, or ahead if the Phillies want to better balance out the righty-lefty mix, and would also allow for Matt Strahm to return to the bullpen as a long reliever. 

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