Wednesday was a solemn anniversary for Bryce Harper. One month ago, he skidded across a wet first base in Nationals Park and took a gasp-inducing tumble. The next day, it was announced that Harper had hyperextended and bruised his left knee. He was heading to the disabled list, stalling his push for MVP and endangering his chances of returning this season.
Tuesday, Harper played catch for the third time in less than a week. Nationals manager Dusty Baker said Wednesday that Harper has been hitting off a tee, taking swings in soft toss and “running lightly.” On Aug. 30, when Harper last spoke to reporters about his injury, he said a non-athlete probably would not be walking around because of the injury, though he was.
The regular season ends Oct. 1. Since the Nationals won the National League East Division, they don’t open the playoffs until Friday, Oct. 6 at home.
“I think if anything, that five-day layoff will help him as much as anybody here,” Baker said. “We’ll see.”
In Harper’s place, the Nationals have used a variety of right fielders. Jayson Werth (shoulder) was back out there Wednesday night. Werth had not played since Sept. 6. Michael A. Taylor was in center field and Howie Kendrick was in left field. If Harper is not able to play in the postseason, Baker will dispatch an outfield assembled in this manner against left-handed pitchers. If a right-handed pitcher is on the mound, Adam Lind could play left field.
Swinging Werth to right and putting Kendrick or Lind in left field compromises the Nationals‘ outfield defense. None are a plus-defender. At 38, Werth’s outfield range has receded. Kendrick has long been an infielder, Lind a first baseman or designated hitter.
Werth has struggled since the day after his return. He hit a home run in his first game back, Aug. 28. After that 2-for-4 night, he went 1-for-24 (.042). What’s important to Baker is that Werth has returned to the field well before the playoffs.
“It’s going to take some time to get his timing and stuff,” Baker said. “Hopefully, nothing else goes wrong and we start getting some of these guys back in time.”
Harper’s time away has all but cut off Harper’s chances at a second National League MVP award. He was the youngest unanimous winner in baseball history when he won in 2015 as a 22 year old. Despite being absent for a month, Harper still leads the National League in on-base plus slugging percentage. Time is his enemy if he wants to stay among the leaders. A batter must have 3.1 plate appearances per team game played to qualify among leaders. Harper has 472 plate appearances this season. He would need 502 by the end of the season to remain qualified among the league leaders.
His absence has pushed him out of the top 10 in home runs. Harper is still tied for third in batting average and just 10 points behind National League leader and Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon.
Baker talked Wednesday about remaining carrots for his players to chase. The Nationals have three weeks’ worth of games that can only influence their postseason seed, not if they are in it. One thing Harper had mentioned as important to him was the MVP award. He probably has two teammates who will receive consideration: Anthony Rendon and Max Scherzer. Rendon seems a lock to receive multiple votes from members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, who are instructed to submit a top 10. Scherzer is the favorite to win the National League Cy Young for the second consecutive season. His chances at MVP are much more slim.
For Rendon and others, there are round numbers to pursue. Rendon had a career-high 91 RBIs coming into Wednesday. Baker has encouraged him to push that to 100. Rendon’s batting average is .302 and on-base percentage .400. Being above those two marks could provide other encouragement as the final games play out. Reliever Brandon Kintzler has 28 saves and Baker would like to help him to 30. There are also contract escalators to consider. For instance, Gio Gonzalez passing 180 innings pitched this season on Tuesday night vested his $12 million option to return to the Nationals next season.
“You have to find whatever motivation that you can find,” Baker said. “Like I remember Steve Garvey one year was going for 200 hits even though we’d clinched. I remember one time I asked him how he played with the constant migraines. He said he played for older ladies or sick kids. You’ve got to find whatever motivation you can find.
“I urge my guys not to be selfish, but to try to accomplish personal accomplishments and accolades. I want all my guys at the end of the year get Gold Gloves, get [Silver Slugger Awards], get batting titles, RBI titles.”
Most of those things will have to wait another season for Harper. He just wants to move from the batting tee to someone throwing him pitches, then, eventually, into the postseason. He has 23 days to make it.
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