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Bryce Harper has shown a penchant for the dramatic this season, producing long home runs and wince-inducing, blood-drawing crashes into solid, immovable objects. Monday night, in his first game since May 26, he went with the homer part of that equation, taking the second pitch he saw from Milwaukee's Yovani Gallardo in the first inning deep to left field for a solo shot (above).
That homer was Harper's 13th of the year and first since May 22, and it helped Washington to a 10-5 win over the Brewers. He apparently had a lot of pent-up energy from those days off; his run around the bases clocked in at just under 18 seconds.
Though that was Harper's only hit on the day, it was a welcome return for the dynamic outfielder, who missed the entire month of June with a variety of aches, bumps, scrapes and bruises. Ultimately, it was bursitis in his left knee and concussion symptoms from slamming into the right-field wall at Dodger Stadium that landed him on the disabled list. Throughout June, most of the focus on Harper was the pace of his recovery, with Harper suggesting he needed more rehab time than Nationals manager Davey Johnson thought he did. In the end, he got in four combined games with High-A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg, with four hits, a homer and three walks.
His return couldn't come at a better time for the Nationals, who at 42-40 are still in contention but need wins in a hurry. When Harper hit the DL on May 26, the Nats sat at 26-24, 4 1/2 games behind Atlanta. Though Washington stayed afloat without Harper, going 15-16, the gap in the NL East has now widened to six games. Luckily for the Nationals, the Braves are the only real division competition, with the Mets and Marlins well behind and the Phillies likely joining them soon. It may be, however, that the division is Washington's best hope, as the battle for the wild card will pit them against two of the Cardinals, Pirates or Reds, as well as potentially the Dodgers, Diamondbacks or Rockies.
Though Harper's loss wasn't the only reason behind the Nationals' malaise — Stephen Strasburg, Ross Detwiler and Jayson Werth also missed time — he left a hole in the lineup Washington had a hard time filling. With Harper out, Johnson tried to fill the vacancy in left field with the likes of Roger Bernadina, Tyler Moore, and Steve Lombardozzi. Suffice to say, that didn't work out well. Bernadina put up a .250/.308/.417 line with two homers and four RBIs in 72 at-bats, which wasn't awful, but was still a far cry from the .287/.386/.587 mark that Harper left behind. Lombardozzi posted an eye-scorchingly bad .224/.225/.276 line with just one walk and no homers in 80 plate appearances. Moore was slightly better, with a .217/.250/.391 line in eight games, but was sent down to Triple-A on June 10.
Obviously, Harper is a good bet to out-perform Bernadina and Lombardozzi going forward, and getting their bats out of the lineup can only be a good thing for a Nationals offense that has been depressingly moribund. As Jay Jaffe pointed out in a post earlier Monday, Washington managed a meager .244/.299/.397 line in the month of June. And though Harper's presence in the third spot of the order can only help, he can't fix the leadoff and second spots from being a disaster. Leadoff hitters for Washington this season have managed a .255/.313/.348 line, while the No. 2 spot has been even worse, at .220/.262/.338 and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 75-19.
Most of those putrid at-bats in the second spot belong to Werth, who had a .708 OPS before going on the DL with a hamstring strain May 11. Since returning to action June 4, he's turned in a much better .286/.362/.488 mark, though a good deal of that production has come in the cleanup or fifth spot. With Harper back in the lineup, Johnson went back to Werth in the No. 2 spot, Ryan Zimmerman at cleanup and Adam LaRoche hitting fifth. It's worth seeing whether Johnson sticks with that arrangement. When Werth was out, Harper hit in the second spot in the order for a stretch of games in late May.
As for Harper, the question is whether he can recharge his team's offense and insert himself back into the NL MVP race. At the time of his injury May 9, his gaudy .302/.383/.629 line with 10 homers made him an early favorite for the award — in so much as there can be a favorite in early May. The bursitis, followed by the wall crash, limited him at the plate until his disabled list stint (if you can call a .235/.395/.441 line "limited"). Now, he sits nine home runs behind NL leader Carlos Gonzalez. In terms of WAR, at 1.7, he's well behind Carlos Gomez (5.0), David Wright (4.5), Paul Goldschmidt (4.2) and others.
What works in Harper's favor is Gomez and Wright are both on horrible teams with no chance at contention. If he can come back, produce at his pre-injury numbers and help Washington snag a wild-card spot, or even the division crown, MVP voters might look past his missed month, ala Josh Hamilton in 2010. It also helps that Harper is seeing the ball better in his second season than his 2012 rookie year. His walk rate has jumped from nine percent to 14 percent, and his strikeout rate has fallen from 20 percent to 17. He's done so without even changing his approach at the plate. Harper is swinging as much and making as much contact in 2013 as he did last year, according to Fangraphs.
MVP or not, Harper's return will help the Nationals. Whether it'll help them enough to leave .500 behind and stake a claim to a second straight division title remains to be seen.
And here's his first inning bomb again, this time in GIF form, if you need another reminder about his MVP potential (via SB Nation):