To get Bryce Harper back on the field in time for the postseason, the Washington Nationals and their manager, Dusty Baker, took some extraordinary measures. The Nationals took a tactical approach, flying in several minor league pitchers just so they could pitch to Harper in simulated games. And Baker summoned up the spiritual, praying for Harper’s speedy recovery and getting an assist from a friend of his who is an elder in the Cheyenne tribe.
“They burned sage for Bryce every day,’’ Baker said last weekend in reference to the elder, Dennis Limberhand, and his family. “There’s a lot of positive thoughts out there for Bryce to come back.’’
And now Harper is back, with his return coming on Tuesday night, when he played four innings in right field in Philadelphia against the Phillies and went hitless in three at-bats.
Harper had missed 42 games after slipping on the first-base bag in a game on Aug. 12 and ending up on the ground, writhing in pain. He was putting up Most Valuable Player Award numbers for the second time in three seasons when he went down, and the diagnosis was a bone bruise in his left knee along with a strained calf and a good deal of uncertainty as to when he would return and what shape he would be in when he did. In that sense, Harper’s injury fit right into the postseason story line of the Nationals, which has become embedded in frustration.
A first-place finish in the National League East in 2012 and a loss in the first round to the St. Louis Cardinals. A first-place finish in 2014 and a loss in the first round to the San Francisco Giants. And then more of the same in 2016 — first place in the N.L. East, and then a first-round ouster, this time by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Harper played in all three of those postseason series, and did well in only one of them (2014). But the idea that he might not be ready to play this time, when the Nationals are likely to face the defending champion Chicago Cubs in the first round, created a lot of unease among Nationals fans.
In the wake of Tuesday’s return, Harper had five games left in the regular season to shake off the rust in what is essentially an improvised rehabilitation assignment on the major league level. Players normally do that kind of assignment in the minors, but because the minor league season ended in early September, the Nationals had no other way of easing Harper back into action.
So he hit in the batting cages for weeks, then graduated to hitting on the field, running the bases and shagging fly balls. Last week, the Nationals set up the simulated games for Harper with pitchers right off the plane. That, the Nationals decided, was a better option than sending Harper to Florida to face raw prospects in the instructional league.
“That’s the biggest thing for me: just trying to see where my timing is at and see how it feels,” Harper said after his second simulated game, on Saturday in Queens, where the Nationals were facing the Mets. “It takes time to get back in the swing of things.”
Harper looked comfortable taking batting practice before Sunday’s game against the Mets, smashing balls far over the right-field fence. Because of his talent (five All-Star selections and an M.V.P. Award, in 2015) and the fact that he is 24, he may be able to compensate for the short amount of time he will have before the postseason begins.
“For a young player, he knows himself and his body pretty well,” Baker said. “This will certainly be a test. But it would really send an influx of confidence on this team to have him back.”