Not yet cleared to run, Harper facing tight time frame to return

It's been 18 days since Bryce Harper slipped on first base, hurtled awkwardly to the ground and had to be helped back to the dugout at Nationals Park. Eighteen days later, Harper is up and about, walking without a particularly noticeable limp.

Which doesn't mean the star outfielder is anywhere close to returning to the Nationals lineup.

Harper revealed today that in addition to the significant bone bruise and hyperextension in his left knee, he also strained his calf during the Aug. 12 play that has been burned into everyone's memory banks. And aside from some light exercises and work on other parts of his body, he hasn't been able to do much else since, leaving the Nationals and Harper himself unsure when exactly he will be able to play again in an attempt to be active and productive for the postseason.

Bryce-Harper-carried-off-field-sidebar.jpg"I'm just going to take it what's best for this organization, what's best for myself," he said this afternoon before the Nationals' series finale against the Marlins. "I don't want to come back and pop something and have to have surgery, or something goes bad. ... Just trying to take it day-by-day and worry about what I can each day I come in here, support the guys around the clubhouse and do what I can do."

That's a far less optimistic tone than Harper (or the Nationals) offered up the day after his injury, when the prevailing sentiment was one of relief after an MRI revealed no ligament or tendon damage as most feared. Even so, general manager Mike Rizzo at the time couldn't definitively say Harper would return in 2017

"Although we feel we've dodged a bullet a bit here with any long-term ligament and tendon damage," Rizzo said Aug. 13, "the bone bruise is something of significance, and we're going to treat him cautiously and, hopefully, have him back later on this season."

In order for that to happen, Harper is going to need to be able to start doing something resembling baseball activities in the next couple of weeks. Even once his leg has healed, he'll need time - like any player returning from injury - to get at-bats, play the field and get himself back into midseason form.

The National League Division Series begins in 37 days. That's a condensed window for Harper to cross each hurdle that still stands between him and a spot in the lineup.

"I think it's going to take some time to get it going, but we don't have much," he said. "Nobody's really playing in the minor leagues (in September). Our teams didn't make any playoffs, either, so that kind of hurts us. But it's something we'll have to deal with once we get there."

Given the situation, the Nationals have no choice but to make sure they're covered for all potential scenarios. Which is why Jayson Werth today is making his second straight start in right field.

"(Harper) is a long ways from running, which is playing the outfield, running the bases," manager Dusty Baker said. "I don't know if he's supposed to hit on it or not. I hate the thought of him not being around, but you've got to make those plans, whether you like it or not. Before we holler doomsday, we've got a month to go, and then we'll see."

In the meantime, Harper gets treatment every day from the Nationals training staff, not only on his injured knee and calf but other areas to help strengthen his leg and make the return a little bit easier. He'll travel with the club to Milwaukee tonight and make the road trip with his teammates, even though he's still admittedly dealing with a significant injury.

"If I wasn't an athlete and I was just your average person, I'd probably not even be on it or doing anything," Harper said. "I'm thankful enough to be able to have a strong unit in there, training staff, to come in every single day and work hard and do the things I need to do around my body that take a little stress off the knee area and calf area that can hopefully speed up recovery. Speed up those places around it that I can be stronger in, so when I come back, I don't have to rely on one muscle or one thing in my body to keep me going and everything."

It's far from an ideal scenario, and those who are around Harper every day know the waiting is killing him.

"I can sense a little frustration in his voice when I ask him how he's doing," Baker said. "Usually he's not a smart aleck, but lately he's been a little short in temperament. And I can tell that's because he wants to play. So I just leave it alone."

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