Harper played in just 22 games this season before tearing a ligament in his left thumb when sliding into third base on a triple. He’s missed the Nats’ last 57 games, but tonight, he’ll return.
And on his bobblehead giveaway night, no less.
Harper never really got going prior to his injury, hitting just one homer and driving in nine through those 22 games played. He had shown signs of starting to heat up, however, going 5-for-11 with two extra-base hits and four RBIs in the three games before needing surgery to repair that torn ligament.
He went on the DL hitting .289/.352/.422. He’ll come off it hoping to add some punch to an offensive attack that has been lacking consistency the last couple weeks.
If Harper’s numbers on his rehab assignment are any indication, the two-plus months on the DL haven’t done much to disrupt his timing at the plate.
In five rehab games split between high Single-A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg, Harper went 9-for-14 with a double, four homers, 11 RBIs, seven runs scored, five walks and one strikeout. He stole two bases and was caught stealing twice.
That’s a .643/.737/1.571 slash line, folks. Against minor league pitching, yes. But if you’re wondering why Harper played in just five rehab games as compared to the seven to nine that he had originally said he wanted, that’s probably the reason why. He had nothing left to prove at the minor league level.
If his thumb was healthy and his legs felt good, Harper would be back with the Nationals. So he’ll return tonight.
The question now, the one that we’ve all been wondering for the last handful of weeks, is how manager Matt Williams will go about sliding Harper back into the starting lineup on an everyday basis.
There had been some discussion about moving Harper around a good bit in the outfield, having him play left field some days, center field on others (giving Denard Span a day off) and right field on occasion (allowing Jayson Werth to rest a bit).
That would allow Ryan Zimmerman to get a good bit of time in left, where he has played the last month, would keep Anthony Rendon at third base and would leave Danny Espinosa at second, where his glove brings plenty of value.
But over the weekend, Williams said that his plan of attack wouldn’t force his established players to put their egos aside and get comfortable with less playing time, strongly indicating that when Harper comes back, the Nats will use their opening day lineup. That would involve Harper playing left the majority of the time, Zimmerman moving back to third base and Rendon sliding back over to second, where his defense is solid and his bat helps bring depth to the batting order.
That wouldn’t be the Nats’ best defensive alignment - Zimmerman’s throws across the diamond from third have been an issue the last couple of years, and while Rendon can pick it nicely at second, Espinosa’s defensive ability is superior - but it would allow Williams to get his best bats in the lineup every day.
Span has been an effective leadoff man of late. Werth is slumping offensively but is a presence in the middle of the lineup. Rendon has been a terror offensively. And Zimmerman has yet to really get going at the plate but has shown he can take off in the second half.
Those are guys you need in your lineup. Add Harper to the mix, and the Nats might start to produce more consistently, giving their pitching staff some more help.
We’ll see how things look when Williams writes out his lineup this afternoon. But it sure appears things will go back to the way they were in the early days of the season. And the Nats hope that Harper’s return will help jumpstart them as they look to build some momentum going into the All-Star break.
Update: The Nationals have made the activation official, and Harper will be available for tonight’s game. Left-hander Xavier Cedeno has been optioned to Triple-A Syracuse to clear a spot on the 25-man roster.