The crack of the bat said it all. This wasn't a sound anyone had heard around the Nationals batting cage in five weeks. This was the sound only Bryce Harper makes when he connects with a ball during batting practice.
And this being Harper's first on-field BP session since his scary-looking left leg injury on Aug. 12, it drew plenty of attention. From general manager Mike Rizzo, hitting coach Rick Schu and other team personnel standing behind the cage. From reporters and photographers watching near the dugout, snapping shots and videos. From others who had already assembled around the Dodgers dugout, all wanting to get a glimpse of this show.
And make no mistake: It was a show. Harper cranked a bunch of pitches over the fence, including one spurt of three towering shots that each traveled at least 440 feet to left-center, straightaway center and right-center field. Swapping turns in the cage with teammate Stephen Drew (trying to make it back from an abdominal strain), Harper took full swings throughout his session and didn't appear to be favoring his left leg at all.
To the untrained eye, everything looked perfectly normal. Harper, though, is a harsher critic of himself than others are.
"I felt a little off, still," he said. "Not my knee, per se, but more just myself. It's going to take some time to get back and get in focus. Got a long ways to go, and hopefully be back soon."
Harper is talking about his timing at the plate, which is understandably not in peak form after a long layoff. He now has 19 days to try to get that figured out before the Nationals play Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Oct. 6.
Of more importance on Sept. 17 is the fact that Harper's knee and calf have healed to the point he can take a full round of batting practice (and run from the plate to first base) with no issues.
So, can Harper say at this point he'll be ready for the start of the postseason?
"I hope so," he said. "That's definitely in my head. That's what I want to do. That's where I want to be. But it takes time. Just trying to do the best I can to get out here and do the things I can to get back and get ready, and see where it's at."
The physical hurdles Harper still needs to cross are the most significant ones: Sprinting, making sharp turns around bases, sliding, diving. Basically, quick-burst tests that require lateral movement that will test his knee unlike anything else.
But there appears to be time to pass those tests. The most important test, in Harper's mind, is the last test.
"Playing in a baseball game," he said. "That's going to be the biggest thing, getting in there and playing the game and feeling good. As long as I'm healthy, that's all I want."
The question Harper and the Nationals are going to have to confront at some point is whether it's worth it to get him into any big league games before the postseason. Following tonight's series finale against the Dodgers, the Nats play nine games on the road at Atlanta, New York and Philadelphia. Harper could go to West Palm Beach, Fla., at some point and work out with the organization's instructional league club, which reported today and starts playing games Sept. 25.
The Nationals wrap up the regular season with a four-game series at home, Sept. 28-Oct. 1 against the Pirates. They then have four days off before Game 1 of the NLDS, a gap clubs typically don't like but one manager Dusty Baker has pointed out could be crucial for Harper.
"It takes me a while to get my timing going," Harper said. "I hit a lot in the offseason to get ready for spring training, so that I'm ready to go. It's definitely going to be a tough thing. If we play Chicago, I might be facing Jon Lester for my first at-bat in six weeks. That's a tough task. It's going to take some time. Hopefully I can get back and get going a little sooner than later."
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