“Is that really you?” Johnson asked Harper. “Are you OK? You ready to go?”
Harper shook Johnson’s hand.
“Yeah, I’m ready,” Harper said.
Harper was reinstated from the disabled list today after a four-game rehab assignment, and he’ll play left field and return to the Nationals’ lineup in his normal No. 3 spot tonight against the Brewers.
Johnson joked to reporters this afternoon that it seemed like half a year since he’d last seen Harper. Harper was only out a little more than a month, and to him, it didn’t really seem like an incredibly long time out of action.
“No, not really,” he said. “I was really worried about my knee and myself at the time. Of course, I think about my team also, but in this situation, I really wanna get better so I can help my team. Didn’t seem that long, and I’m just excited to be back.”
Harper said a little bit of swelling would pop up in his knee after rehab games, but nothing he or the Nats were concerned about.
“I feel good, and it’s to the point I want to play and I feel good enough to play, so I’m gonna get out there and see what I can do,” Harper said.
Was there a moment during his rehab stint when he really gave the knee a test and was convinced he was OK?
“I think the first day when I slid into second on the double, the bloop double, and ran the bases after that, I felt pretty good,” Harper said. “I really pushed it every single game I played. Made a couple diving plays in the outfield and then also diving at third and diving back into first a couple times. I didn’t feel it at all, and I think that really where I was in my head, I was thinking, ‘I’m ready to go, and let’s get going.’ “
Harper will continue wearing some padding on his left knee under his uniform, something that will protect the knee when Harper slides or bangs the knee diving.
Johnson, obviously, is thrilled to have Harper back.
“I think part of it is his bat, but just the energy he brings,” Johnson said. “He takes a lot of the focus, and he’s a competitor. Just having that 20-year-old energy running around 100 percent. I’m sure he’s probably going to still run into a wall, I’m sure he’s going to dive head-first. He did that two times on his first day back. But I don’t want to put a damper on that. That’s who he is, that’s how he plays the game.”
There was some question how Johnson would structure his lineup once Harper returned from injury, especially with Anthony Rendon hitting so well in the No. 2 spot in the order. Jayson Werth started the season hitting second, but injuries forced Johnson to shuffle things around over the last couple months.
Rendon hit .313/.333/.453 while in the two-hole and is batting .330 since getting called back up to the majors in early June. Werth, meanwhile, is hitting .272/.333/.440 this season.
Johnson opted to put Werth back in the No. 2 spot and move Rendon down to seventh in the order. Why’d he go that route? Well, the Nats’ skipper said there were a couple reasons.
“Rendon did a heck of a job,” Johnson said. “His on-base percentage, his batting average, his approach was great. But the problem is, Werth has got a little more pop. He has a history of being able to get on base, that’s his M.O. Getting on base, taking pitches. When you have three left-handers first through five (in the order), the guys that I have separating them, I want them to give the other manager on the other side pause before he brings in his left-hander to go through those three left-handers. It’s all about matchups late in the ballgame that you want to create, and he is more of a threat at this point then Rendon is.
“But Rendon did the job for what I want in the two-hole - get on base. If there’s a guy on second, he can shoot the ball over to right field and get him over and get him in. It’s not a slap at Rendon at all, but the other guy’s got a proven track record. He was one of the reasons we were so successful last year - I led (Werth) off and hit Harper behind him. They’re used to having that relationship, too. I pretty much thought I would go back there.”