Bryce Harper: "If I feel good, I'm going to play"

Bryce Harper's initial thought when he fell to the ground in heap Friday night? The same as everyone who was watching it in the stadium and on television: He might have suffered a major knee injury to end his season.

"Of course, you're going to think the worst, and I'm one of the worst at it," Harper admitted this afternoon. "I think I'm going to die every time I have a stomachache. It's definitely a bad feeling."

But while the rest of the baseball-watching world woke up this morning nervous and anxious to hear the official diagnosis, Harper already was reasonably confident the injury wasn't as severe as initially feared. In forcing himself to walk up a flight of stairs in the corridor that connects the Nationals' dugout and clubhouse, and then forcing himself to test his left knee via a series of jumps and other maneuvers, the star right fielder proved to himself and doctors he hadn't torn his ACL or some other major structural portion of his knee.

harper-white-sidebar-bat.jpg"I just said to the doctor: 'I'm just going to jump back and forth on both sides, and if I collapse on the ground, then so be it,'" Harper recalled. "So I jumped back and forth, and did some figure skater stuff and tried to put as much force on it as I could to see if I hit the ground. It was definitely sore. But I felt fine, didn't feel like anything that I never felt before. So that was definitely good, and I was just praying that the MRI went well."

The MRI, administered before Harper went home to go to bed, confirmed his suspicion. In hyperextending his knee, he did suffer a significant bone bruise. But there was no ligament or tendon damage. And so his season may not be over after all.

Neither Harper nor the Nationals are offering up any kind of firm timetable for his return, but both sides are hopeful it happens before the end of the season. Whether that means he's back in two weeks, in seven weeks when the regular season ends or sometime after the playoffs have begun is uncertain. But the expectation is that he will take the field for the Nats again in 2017.

"It's on my timetable," he said. "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. I want to be at 100 percent as I go out there. I played through injury before, and I'm not going to do that anymore in my career."

In that last line, Harper offered up perhaps the closest confirmation he ever has that his right shoulder was injured last summer, an ailment that never forced him to miss time but seemed clearly to hinder his swing and his production during a subpar season by his standards.

He has returned to peak form this year and stood as perhaps the favorite to win National League MVP honors again before Saturday night's tumble. Whether he can still play enough to compile enough stats to win the award remains to be seen, but he admitted it's on his mind, along with other potential accomplishments.

"The World Series is definitely on my mind, the playoffs, things like that," he said. "But one award is on my mind as well, if you guys know what that one is. It's a big one to me. So definitely team accolades and things like that come in front of my own, but it's what I'm striving toward."

This much is certain: The Nationals, collectively, weren't as nervous today about Harper's chances of helping them try to win a title in 2017 as they were Saturday night as the scene unfolded.

"We don't know how long he's going to be out, but he will be back before the end of the season," manager Dusty Baker said. "He's young. He probably mends well, hasn't had very many injuries to this date. We expect him ... we're not gonna rush him back, but we expect him to be back for the stretch drive and to be healthy. That's what we want. We want him healthy."

Given the conditions in which he slipped on the base - in a game that began at 10:06 p.m. after a long rain delay, with precipitation still falling from the sky - Harper would have been justified in publicly complaining about Major League Baseball's decision to play at that moment.

But while he admitted thinking about that fact for a split-second as he was on the ground in pain, Harper insisted nothing could have been done to prevent his injury.

"Nobody knows Mother Nature," he said. "It's part of the game. It's not a record that we're playing at 10 o'clock at night. We had already done it this year. Like I said, that's part of the game. It's just an unfortunate situation."

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