Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Nats' Harper healing -- walls are waiting

Working on repaired knee, coveting walk-off homers

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OXON HILL, Md. -- Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper says he wants to focus on the upcoming season rather than dwell on his injuries last year.

Harper is working to rehabilitate his left knee from surgery last October.

Asked Saturday to talk about what he learned about himself during a year in which he was limited to 118 games, he said: "That I like hitting walk-off homers."

The 21-year-old hit his first one to end a 9-7 win over Pittsburgh on July 25. It was a bright spot for Harper and the Nationals in year where much more was expected of both.

"I don't really want to think about last year," the two-time all-star said at the team's annual NatsFest.

"Everybody knows how I did last year and how I got hurt. I just want to focus on this year and focus on what I need to do to get better, what the rehab is, how to get better in spring with my knee, running, hitting and everything," he said.

Harper said he probably won't be at 100 per cent when spring training opens.

"It's going well right now," he said. "Trying to get back to full strength, see where I can get by spring training and see if I can maybe go through spring training and get to 100 per cent by the time the season starts.

"I sprinted for the first time three weeks ago," he said. "That was awesome. No pain. To run with no pain was a lot of fun. I haven't hit with no pain for about, I mean, a year."

Harper didn't provide details, but said he hadn't been 100 per cent healthy even before his collisions with outfield walls on April 30 and May 13.

The run-ins eventually forced him out of the lineup for more than a month with left-knee bursitis. He finished with a .274 batting average, 20 homers and 58 RBI.

The Nationals, picked by many to repeat as National League East champions, struggled for much of the season and were 60-64 on Aug. 19. They ended with a 26-12 run but finished 10 games behind the Braves and missed the playoffs.

Monitoring Harper's progress in Florida will be one of new manager Matt Williams' priorities.

"I have the task of making sure he gets enough (at-bats) and we give him enough rest during the course of spring training so he'll be ready for opening day," Williams said. "So that said, it's kind of fluid at this point."

Hired in October to succeed Davey Johnson, Williams said he won't try to change Harper's aggressive style.

"He's going to run into walls -- it's going to happen," Williams said. "Luckily, they're padded. I just hope he doesn't damage the stadium when he does. 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 and he doesn't have to run into a wall, or maybe get him to the fence and let him find it to be able to make a play."

Harper said he's looking forward to playing for Williams. "I think he's going to bring a spark to our team, the way he manages."

Pitcher Stephen Strasburg is aware of Williams' reputation.

"Everything I've heard from some of the guys that I live around, they say he's intense. I kind of get that feeling, but I think it's going to be a good thing for this club, so I'm excited to play for him," Strasburg said.

Strasburg, who underwent arthroscopic surgery in October to remove bone chips from his right elbow, indicated his recovery is on schedule.

"It's not considered rehab anymore," he said. "It's just like normal throwing, running, the normal routine I do every off-season."

The right-hander finished 8-9 with 3.00 ERA. He had trouble loosening up after his outing on Sept. 8 and eventually went 14 days before his next start.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2014 B6

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