Harper, Suárez take steps toward returning

April 19th, 2023

This story was excerpted from the Phillies Beat newsletter. Paul Casella is currently filling in for Todd Zolecki on the beat. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

CHICAGO -- and both faced their toughest test yet in their rehab processes on Tuesday ... each other.

The two squared off in a sim game at Guaranteed Rate Field -- and it attracted quite a crowd.

President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski watched from the top step of the visitors' dugout. Manager Rob Thomson was also present. And a strong contingent of Phillies teammates came out 90 minutes before first pitch of the club's doubleheader against the White Sox to watch the showdown, including , ,  and Seranthony Domínguez, among others.

Oh, and Craig Kimbrel shagged balls in center field, including tracking down a Harper flyout to the warning track.

It was an important day for both Suárez (left forearm tenderness) and Harper as they inch closer to returning, though Suárez is obviously much farther ahead in that process.

"I hadn't faced a hitter since like March 8, so going from that to facing Harper -- it's something, you know?" Suárez said. "But it's good because it means that I'm making progress and things are moving forward."

The trainers and coaching staff will decide what's next for Suárez, but he has Harper's approval.

"He just looked like Ranger," Harper said. "I hope he gets back healthy as soon as possible because we definitely need him."

Of course, the Phillies also need Harper, who followed up his at-bats against Suárez by heading to first base for scooping and stretching drills as he continues to learn the position.

But nothing Harper did on Tuesday impacts his timeline. After all, the Phillies already know Harper is ready to swing the bat, plus he won't be playing first base when he first rejoins the lineup anyway.

The obstacle continues to be sliding, something that Harper has been doing in a modified form. Hitting the ground at full speed, though, could cause Harper to sprain his surgically repaired right elbow -- and then he's back to square one.

"There's no reason to rush that," Harper said. "I need to be smart in what I do and I'm not going to rush anything out there, because it does nothing good for our team or our organization if I come back the fastest, but not the smartest."

When Harper underwent Tommy John surgery on Nov. 23, the initial estimate was that he'd return "by the All-Star break." Yet when the team opted not to place Harper on the 60-day injured list to start the season, it created some speculation that he could return sooner than mid-July.

Harper's rapid progression from hitting off a tee to taking daily batting practice to hitting against Nick Nelson and Suárez has some believing that Harper could beat even the most optimistic of timetables -- but he also pumped the brakes on that notion.

"I love this game. I miss playing this game," Harper said. "I want to get back as quick as possible, but I've said I want to get back as smart as I can, too. Not just go out there and say, 'Hey I came back the fastest.'"

It will be a much clearer picture once Harper meets with Dr. Neal ElAttrache in Los Angeles. Neither Harper nor the Phillies have said when that will happen, but it figures to be soon.

For now, Harper is going to continue getting at-bats -- “I’ve only faced live pitching two times,” he pointed out -- and learning first base.

“It's all up to Dr. ElAttrache and what he feels. I know the mark that he has in his mind, and we'll go from there when I talk to him when I get out to see him, whenever that may be,” Harper said. “But I'm just going to keep pushing the envelope to try to do everything I can to get ready.”