What can Nats reasonably expect from Harper in return?

NEW YORK - When he slipped on first base, felt his left knee buckle and tumbled awkwardly to the ground in the bottom of the first inning Aug. 12 at Nationals Park, Bryce Harper didn’t know if he’d play again this season. By the next morning, once an MRI confirmed he had not suffered any ligament damage, only a significant bone bruise and calf strain, Harper’s outlook was a whole lot rosier.

Even so, Harper and the Nationals knew they had a tight window to get healed, get back in baseball shape and get back in the lineup before season’s end. Game 1 of the National League Division Series was 55 days away. Would he be able to pull that off?

Bryce-Harper-carried-off-field-sidebar.jpg“It’s on my timetable,” Harper said Aug. 13. “It’s whatever I feel. We’re not going to rush or anything like that. So if I feel good, I’m going to play. If I don’t feel good, I’m not going to go out there and play.”

Today is Day 44. And, barring some unforeseen complication, Harper will be activated off the disabled list and play for the Nationals tonight in Philadelphia, according to a source familiar with the club’s plan.

He’ll make it back with 11 days to spare. And the Nats couldn’t be more thrilled by that development.

“Oh, it’s gonna be great,” right-hander Max Scherzer said. “I think he’s itching at getting back on the field more than any of us are. Hopefully he can come back and get his timing back. That’s going to be the hardest thing for him. But when you put him back in the lineup, our lineup is scary. We can score runs with the best of them.”

The Nationals more than held their own in Harper’s absence. They went 25-16 while he was out, good enough for a .610 winning percentage that actually was slightly better than the .605 mark they posted during the previous 114 games while he was active.

But they achieved that success largely behind improved pitching, especially from their revamped bullpen (which has a 2.88 ERA over the last 41 games). Their lineup was not the same without Harper, seeing their average production drop from a league-best 5.0 runs per game to a more pedestrian 4.1 runs per game.

So Harper’s return should have a significant impact on a lineup that will look complete - and balanced - for the first time in more than six weeks.

“I think that’s the thing, having the lineup being left-right-left again, like we were doing earlier in the year,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “Just his presence in the lineup, the depth it creates, it gives the other team another big person to worry about. It definitely makes us better.”

The Nationals will be markedly better if Harper resembles the best version of himself. But is it realistic to expect that after a long layoff and an expedited rehab process?

Normally, a player who missed that much time would go on a minor league rehab assignment, playing in at least four or five games in a more controlled environment against lesser competition. But with the minor league season over, and with only one week remaining in the major league season, the Nationals couldn’t afford to wait any longer with Harper.

He looked like his normal self every time he picked up a bat in the last week, whether taking regular batting practice or facing low-level minor league pitchers flown in to throw simulated games at SunTrust Park in Atlanta and Citi Field in New York. But there’s a big difference between that and the real thing.

Zimmerman found himself in a similar situation in 2014. He suffered a major hamstring strain on July 22, pushed himself to make it back for the final week of the regular season, went 5-for-19 with one extra-base hit in eight games and then was relegated to pinch-hitting duties only in the NLDS. (He was 1-for-4 in that series against the Giants, a four-game series in which the Nationals scored a total of only nine runs.)

If anyone can appreciate the challenge Harper now faces, it’s Zimmerman.

“It’s not ideal, obviously. But it is what it is,” he said. “You’re just so happy to have a chance to get back and contribute, that kind of takes over. ... Assuming that he gets some games in, that’ll be helpful. Just having his presence in the lineup is huge.”

Maybe Harper won’t be close to 100 percent. And maybe he doesn’t need to be. Maybe the simple fact he’s back and batting somewhere in the heart of the Nationals lineup will be enough to help lift this team in these ultra-meaningful games coming up.

How many people happily would have taken that if asked as Harper was on the ground Aug. 12 writhing in pain? How many truly were confident he’d make it back 44 days later?

Maybe any production he provides at this point is gravy for a team that was prepared to proceed without him.

“But he’s also one of those guys,” Zimmerman added, “where you wouldn’t be surprised if, when he comes back, he goes crazy.”

In other words, be sure to tune in tonight. You never know what you might see.

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