Harper bats in simulated game, could be active next week

ATLANTA - Bryce Harper faced a couple of live pitchers this afternoon for the first time since he injured his left leg 5 1/2 weeks ago, yet another encouraging development that could allow the Nationals slugger to return in time to play part of the final week of the regular season as a tune-up for the postseason.

Harper participated in a simulated game at SunTrust Park, with a pair of Nationals prospects (Sterling Sharp and Brigham Hill) brought up from the instructional league in Florida to face the 2015 National League MVP and teammate Stephen Drew.

The simulated game drew a sizable crowd around the cage, with general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Dusty Baker among those watching and evaluating how far the 24-year-old has progressed since suffering a significant bone bruise of his left knee as well as a strained calf after slipping on first base Aug. 12 against the Giants.

Harper-HR-Swing-White-Sidebar.jpgThe takeaway from the session: Harper still has more to prove, but he could be ready to return to the active roster next week, giving him time to get regular at-bats against major league pitching before the Nationals open the postseason Oct. 6.

“It’s conceivable,” Rizzo said. “We’re going to take it day-by-day and see where he’s at. He’s itching to come back and play. The leg feels good, so that’s a positive. He saw some live batting practice today. We’ll take the next step after that. If he’s ready to and strong enough to play some games and get a lot of at-bats in the instructional league, then maybe there’s a possibility he could come back sometime before the season ends.”

The Nationals aren’t formally mapping out the rest of Harper’s rehab quite yet. For now, the plan is to see how his body feels Wednesday after the work he did today, then have him go through an afternoon workout. Harper would then take Thursday off and potentially face more live pitching again Friday, either via another simulated game at Citi Field in New York or possibly in an instructional league game in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Either way, if things progress well this weekend, the Nationals could decide to activate Harper off the disabled list in time for their three-game series at Philadelphia. If not, they’d still have a four-game home series against the Pirates to close out the regular season before going on a four-day break in advance of the NLDS.

Asked if he’s confident Harper could play in big league games next week, Baker replied: “I don’t know. I had confidence the whole time. I was hoping for miracles. And it looks like a miracle is in the process.”

Which isn’t to say Harper has passed every remaining test of his leg. Though he ran the bases and fielded balls in right field this afternoon, he still hasn’t run on the field at full speed or attempted to cut, dive or slide. Those are moves, though, that most likely would only come in a game, so the Nationals may have to just take a chance and put him out there to see how he responds.

“We want him to be instinctual on the field,” Rizzo said. “That’s the important thing. Not to be thinking about his legs at all. We want him to be 100 percent, just to let his talents take over so he doesn’t have to think about it anymore.”

Brian Goodwin, meanwhile, ran sprints in the outfield this afternoon, the most significant on-field work he has attempted since suffering a setback in his rehab from a groin strain two weeks ago.

Though that was progress for Goodwin, the outfielder nonetheless is running out of time to make it back for the NLDS.

“He’s got to get his running progression down, and then he’ll have to start seeing some live pitching also,” Rizzo said. “So he’s pretty far behind Harp’s rehab schedule. We’re going to have to see where he’s at and if we can accelerate the process a little bit and get him running, get him moving and then get him some live at-bats.”

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