- Bryce Harper is getting closer to returning from a knee injury that has shelved him since August, and the Nationals need him back in the lineup if they want to contend in the playoffs.
Given that the Nationals entered the month with a 15-game division lead, the biggest suspense surrounding Washington in September wasn't when they would clinch the NL East, but when Bryce Harper would return. Out since August 12 due to a left knee injury, the 24-year-old slugger took an important step forward on Sunday, taking his first on-field batting practice since the injury. As the team's offense has struggled without him, he's racing the clock to get back into the swing of things.
On a rainy night against the Giants at Nationals Park, Harper hyperextended his left knee and suffered a deep bone bruise when while attempting to beat out an infield grounder. He slipped while crossing first base, took flight for several feet, and rolled around in agony while clutching the knee after crashing to the ground. He was helped off the field and unable to bear any weight on his left leg. Simply by the look of it, it wasn't hard to imagine the next day's news—MRI, torn ligaments, season-ending surgery, a somber promise to root his team on from the sidelines, rehab and come back strong in 2018—but fortunately, the diagnosis wasn’t as severe as anticipated.
In the wake of that reprieve, general manager Mike Rizzo said that he expected Harper back before season's end, and with a 14 1/2-game NL East cushion at the time, the Nationals had no reason to rush him. Even so, as of August 30, the team not only still had no timetable for his return but manager Dusty Baker described his star as frustrated, saying he was "a long way from running." Harper reported having suffered a calf strain in the same leg, further delaying his return and ruling out a rehab assignment (the Nationals' affiliates' seasons ended by September 4). While he had since progressed to jogging and hitting off a tee, Harper finally returned to the cage before the Nationals' series-salvaging victory over the Dodgers on Sunday. Afterwards, he told reporters, "I hope so," in response to the question of whether he would be ready for the start of the Division Series on October 6. “That’s definitely in my head. That’s what I want to do. That’s where I want to be. But it takes time. Just trying to do the best I can to get out here and do the things I can to get back and get ready, and see where it’s at.”
Harper not only still has to regain his timing but show that he can sprint, turn sharply on the bases, slide and dive before he's fully cleared to play. At this point, with only 13 regular season games remaining, the clock is ticking. For the team, there's very little at stake; the Nationals clinched the division on September 10, the first team to do so, but by losing the first two games of their series to the previously slumping Dodgers this past weekend, they squandered their narrow shot to secure the league's best record. At 90–59, they trail the Dodgers (96–53) by six games and have an elimination number of eight. That means that any combination of Washington losses and Los Angeles wins totaling eight or more would guarantee the Dodgers home-field advantage until at least the World Series (so long as they’re still playing). Unlike last year, when the Dodgers beat the Nationals in a thrilling five-game set capped by a Clayton Kershaw save, the two teams wouldn’t cross paths until the NLCS, with the Nationals facing the NL Central winner (the Cubs lead by four games there) and the Dodgers facing the NL wild card game winner.
The big issue for the Nationals over the remainder of the regular season is getting their offense back on track, with or without Harper, who was in the thick of the NL MVP race before the injury. The star outfielder was batting .326/.419/.614 with 29 homers and 4.7 WAR and still ranks second in all three slash stats and third in OPS+ (163). Through August 12, the team had hit .275/.340/.471 while averaging an NL-high 5.44 runs per game. Since then, they’re hitting just .240/.308/.383 and averaging 4.11 runs per game—including 2.88 in their past eight games—with their 21–14 (.600) record during that span owing far more to outstanding run prevention (3.45 per game).
Rightfield has been a particular problem in Harper's absence. Given the latitude to experiment via their considerable lead and expanded September roster, Baker has used eight different fill-ins: Rafael Bautista, Alejandro De Aza, Wilmer Difo, Brian Goodwin, Howie Kendrick, Victor Robles, Andrew Stevenson and Jayson Werth, who are "hitting" .158/.230/.250 with one homer in 135 plate appearances in that capacity. Werth, Stevenson and De Aza, who have combined for 100 of those PA, have hit .115/.200/.218. Werth, the owner of that lone homer, is just 6-for-45 since returning from a 75-game absence due to a fractured metatarsal in his left foot. Kendrick, acquired from the Phillies on July 28, drew the bulk of the playing time in leftfield in Werth's absence and has since spotted in right; he's hit a robust .302/.351/.504 in 42 games with Washington and may be Baker's preferred option for one corner spot come October.
Elsewhere in the lineup, centerfielder Michael A. Taylor has scuffled (.248/.302/.410) since returning to the lineup on August 14 after missing 29 games due to an oblique strain. Twelve of his 29 hits and three of his four homers in the 34 games since returning were bunched into a six-game span against the Marlins, Phillies and Braves from September 6-13. More encouraging has been the return of Trea Turner, who's hit .278/.358/.514 in 19 games since returning from a 51-game absence due to a nondisplaced fracture in his right wrist. The core of the offense without Harper, namely Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman, has tailed off to some degree over the past five weeks, though not enough to sound any alarm bells.
With respect to the outfield situation, it’s worth keeping an eye Victor Robles down the stretch. The Dominican-born 20-year-old isn't just the team's top prospect, he's currently the game's second-best prospect according to MLB Pipeline, with Baseball Prospectus, ESPN and Baseball America all placing him among their midseson top eight as well. The five-tool centerfielder hit .300/.382/.493 with 10 homers and 27 steals split between High A and Double A and is 3-for-9 with a pair of extra-base hits in the majors. While he probably won't see more than spot duty the rest of the way, his exceptional speed and defense (which has included spot duty at both outfield corners) make him a prime candidate for the postseason roster. Barring multiple injuries, there’s no scenario that has him drawing regular duty come October, but the longer Harper is out, the more time the Nationals can see what the youngster can do.
With the Dodgers’ series in the rearview mirror, the Nationals don’t play another team with a .500 or better record until the playoffs; they have three-game road series against the Braves, Mets and Phillies and then close at home with four against the Pirates. The next great test that awaits them is whether Harper can be ready by October 6.