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Bryce Harper’s comeback success is ‘not an easy thing to do.’ Take it from Chase Utley.

After missing two months, Harper picked up where he left off, just like the iconic former Phillie, who traveled almost the same road back in 2007.

It didn't take long for Bryce Harper to make an impact in the Phillies lineup upon his return from injury.
It didn't take long for Bryce Harper to make an impact in the Phillies lineup upon his return from injury.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

To comprehend the degree of difficulty in what Bryce Harper did last week — five hits, including two home runs, in 10 triple-A at-bats, followed by a two-run single in his first major league plate appearance in 61 days and a hit in each of the Phillies’ two subsequent games — let’s consult one of the few people on the planet who can speak from experience.

“It’s not an easy thing to do,” Chase Utley said by phone Sunday during a break from his family vacation on the French Riviera, “especially with the amount of time that he’s missed. But listen, we all know Bryce Harper is a special talent, one that we haven’t seen or maybe won’t see for quite some time. He’s an MVP player. So, it doesn’t surprise me that he’s able to lock it in so quickly.”

» READ MORE: Harper’s absence helped the Phillies become a team that believes. His return will be another spark.

Utley would know a little bit about that. He traveled almost the same road back.

Fifteen years ago, midway through an MVP-worthy season, Utley had his right hand broken by a wayward fastball. Doctors put a pin in the fourth metacarpal, below his ring finger, to speed the healing and cleared him to swing a bat 24 days later. The best second baseman in Phillies history returned to the lineup seven days after that, going 3-for-5 with a solo homer and an RBI double to drive Citizens Bank Park delirious.

OK, so it isn’t quite apples to apples. Harper got hit on the left thumb and missed twice as much time after surgery. But the general idea applies: Sit for several weeks with a fracture in the hand, then come back in the thick of a playoff race without so much as a visible trace of rust.

Surely hitting a baseball is more difficult than that.

“The bone eventually heals, right?” Utley said. “It takes four weeks or so, and it’s good. The fear factor is getting hit there again and starting from square one. But it’s more getting your feet under you and just getting the game repetition under your belt, getting that timeclock mixed in. Because a month or two is a long time.”

Utley hadn’t broken a bone before he met a fastball from Washington left-hander John Lannan on July 26, 2007. He followed the doctors’ advice and didn’t try to rush back, although he admitted to sneaking into the batting cage to take a few hacks at the air “when no one was looking, just to see how it feels again.”

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Harper hadn’t broken a bone either before San Diego left-hander Blake Snell got him with a heater on June 25. But he did have a previous thumb injury.

In 2014, he tore a ligament and missed 57 games for the Nationals. He said Sunday that he used that experience as a road map for coming back from this injury. In a way, this may have been easier because the healing process for a broken bone tends to be more straightforward.

» READ MORE: Utley has moved to England to spread the gospel of baseball — and he’s already converted one Brit

Harper said his swing is “where it needs to be,” remarkable considering he wasn’t cleared to resume hitting until Aug. 1 and took a few rounds of batting practice against his dad at Citizens Bank Park two weeks ago before the two-game assignment in triple A that lasted at least three days less than initially anticipated.

But Harper confessed he didn’t feel as good at the plate as it often appeared over the weekend. In going 3-for-10 with two walks (both intentional) in three games against the Pittsburgh Pirates, he suggested his pitch recognition could have been better and lamented missing pitches that he ordinarily would drive.

“I didn’t really see anything curveball, slider-ish in those two games [at Lehigh Valley],” Harper said. “It was more just fastball-changeup. I’ve got to get used to the curveball, get used to the slider again, stay within my zone and not miss pitches.”

Harper pointed specifically to a sixth-inning at-bat Sunday. He fouled off five pitches, including three breaking balls, against Pirates lefty Manny Bañuelos before eventually grounding out.

“I missed three or four pitches that I should absolutely hammer,” Harper said. “I get really upset when I do miss those pitches. I’ve got to catch myself and say, ‘It’s going to take you a minute.’ I’m happy how my hand is feeling. But it’s the pitch recognition that I really need to hunker down on. Once that kind of flips that switch, I’ll be ready to go.”

» READ MORE: The making of an icon: How Chase Utley became 'The Man' for the Phillies

It takes time, according to Utley. But it also helps to return to a playoff race.

The Phillies went 15-13 sans Utley, in part because then-general manager Pat Gillick traded for second baseman Tadahito Iguchi one day after Utley got injured. Without Harper, the Phillies were 32-20 because Kyle Schwarber, Rhys Hoskins, J.T. Realmuto, Alec Bohm, and unheralded rookie Darick Hall took turns carrying the offense.

In each case, Utley and Harper returned as less a catalyst for a water-treading team than a closer for a club with a long playoff drought. (The Phillies were absent from the postseason for 13 years before they famously rallied to overtake the New York Mets and win the NL East on the final day of the 2007 season.)

Utley said he hasn’t spoken with Harper since the injury. And because he recently moved to London, where he intends to live with his family for the next year, and has been traveling through Europe, he has watched fewer games this summer than usual.

But great hitters recognize and relate to great hitters in a way that few understand, like concert pianists or chessmasters.

“When you’re on the [injured list] for a month or over a month, you feel a little lost,” Utley said. “I felt like I was missing out on all the fun the guys were having. Once I came back, you look around the clubhouse and go, ‘All right, guys. This is the team we started with. We’re going to finish it with this team. We have all our guys healthy and ready to go.’ And that’s exciting, not only for the team itself but for the fans.”

» READ MORE: How the Phillies may make use of an expanded roster in September

Utley returned on Aug. 27, 2007, with 32 games remaining; Harper came back on Aug. 26, with 36 games to go. Utley went 8-for-18 in his first four games back and slashed .321/.397/.519 with five homers overall down the stretch.

A reasonable bar for Harper?

“It’s pretty clear from his rehab assignment and the first few games back that he hasn’t missed a beat,” Utley said. “Knowing Bryce, you know he wants to push his team into the playoffs, so he’s probably been champing at the bit over these last six weeks or so to get back on the field.”

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