July isn't even 24 hours old, and already we have word on two much-anticipated comebacks from a players capable of providing jolts to the flagging offenses of contending teams — though the similarities probably end there. On Monday night, Bryce Harper will return to the Nationals' lineup, while on Tuesday, Alex Rodriguez will begin his rehab stint with the Yankees' A-ball Charleston affiliate.
Given its immediacy, Harper's return is the one likely to have the more impact. The 20-year-old phenom was putting up MVP-caliber numbers (.302/.383/.629 with 10 homers through May 9) when he first sat due to bursitis in his left knee. A frightening collision with the Dodger Stadium rightfield wall on May 13 triggered concussion concerns and left him with enough bumps and bruises — including 11 stitches in his chin — to limit him to 10 starts and one pinch-hitting appearances in a 16-game span before heading to the disabled list.
In the immediate wake of Harper's collision, many a call was heard for him to dial back his intensity level in the name of long-term self-preservation, with some invoking comparisons to 1940s Dodger phenom Pete Reiser, whose willingess to crash into walls turned him into a shell of his former self by his late 20s. Harper himself sounded like a defiant 20-year-old at the time, saying via Twitter, "I will keep playing this game hard for the rest of my life even if it kills me! Ill never stop!" which sounds pretty chilling considering that Reiser was once read last rites after colliding with an Ebbets Field wall.
With the knee problem persisting and Harper spending more time on the sidelines — and doctors' waiting rooms — than on the field, he may have softened his stance somewhat. On June 10, he received injections of cortisone and platelet-rich plasma from Dr. James Andrews, who assured him that he had no structural damage. Since then, the slugger made waves when he suggested a more drawn-out rehab schedule than the one Washington manager Davey Johnson had in mind; Johnson said he believed Harper could begin a rehab stint on June 25 and need just two or three games to get his swing back, but Harper felt he might not be ready for a couple more days and could need as many as six games to regain his timing.
Though not rising to the level of Brian Cashman-versus-Rodriguez, Harper received a public rebuke from Johnson — "When a player starts playing, it's really up to me, what I think they need. Not up to the player," he told reporters — but in the end he returned to action on June 25. In two games with High-A Potomac and two with Double-A Harrisburg, he went 4-for-11 with a double, a triple, a homer and three walks.
The Nationals have won seven of their last 11 games, but even so, they're just 41-40, 6 1/2 games out of first place in the NL East and 5 1/2 back in the wild-card race. Their 3.64 runs per game ranks 13th in the league, and if you take away Harper's overall performance (.287/.386/.587 line with 12 homers in 178 PA), the team is hitting just .233/.288/.371. The recall of Anthony Rendon and the return to action of Jayson Werth helped boost the offense's meager output to 3.92 runs per game in June, but nothing about the .244/.299/.397 line via which they compiled during that month is acceptable from a contender. Harper's return won't fix all that ails them, but his return should boost the heavy preseason favorites' chances of reaching the postseason considerably.
As for Rodriguez, the start of this week's rehab assignment — which will begin with Charleston and likely include stops with the team's Tampa, Trenton and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre affiliates as weather and/or travel dictate — is merely the coda to last week's drama. On June 25, Rodriguez or more likely his publicist announced via Twitter that Dr. Bryan Kelly, who performed the surgery and has overseen his recovery, had given him "the green light to play games again!" Cashman begged to differ in obscene fashion, setting off poorly-sourced, ill-considered conspiracy theories regarding retirement, PED suspensions and insurance scams that I tried to dissect here.
Given that he hasn't played in anything beyond a simulated game since undergoing surgery to repair a torn left hip labrum back in January, Rodriguez's rehab stint won't be a quick one, but the Yankees' move sets the clock ticking. MLB rules allow for a maximum stint of 20 days for non-pitchers, and with the All-Star break blacking out July 15-18 anyway, the question comes down to whether or not he'll be back in time for New York's July 19-21 series at Fenway Park.
CORCORAN: Yankees-Red Sox and more must-attend games of July The Yankee offense is scuffling along at 3.83 runs per game (12th in the league), and their third basemen have combined to hit .231/.293/.315. With five straight losses including a weekend sweep by the Orioles, they've fallen to 42-39, fourth in the AL East, 6 1/2 behind the Red Sox and four back in the wild-card race. Even as Rodriguez nears his 38th birthday and is no longer an MVP-caliber player, the Yankees need him every bit as badly as the Nationals need Harper.