Harper just waiting for green light to return (Nats win 4-3 in 10)

NEW YORK - Bryce Harper has taken batting practice multiple times. He has run the bases. He has shagged fly balls. He has worked on throws from the outfield. He has hit in two simulated games against Nationals minor league pitchers.

At this point, there’s only one thing left for Harper to do: play in an actual game. And at this point, there’s only one thing left for the Nationals to decide: when to let their star slugger do that.

harper-white-sidebar-2017.jpgThat decision hadn’t been made as of late this afternoon, or at least hadn’t been made public. But consensus opinion around the clubhouse remains that Harper will be back within a matter of days, giving him perhaps a full week of game action to prepare himself for the postseason.

“He’s very close,” manager Dusty Baker said. “We just have to talk to him and get a true evaluation of how he feels. And ‘true’ is the key word. We know he’s champing at the bit to come back, and we’re champing at the bit to have him back. We have to do what’s best for him and for us in the long run, as well as the short.”

Harper joined fellow rehabbing teammates Brian Goodwin and Stephen Drew in batting in this afternoon’s simulated game, which came against a pair of Nationals minor leaguers flown in from the instructional league in West Palm Beach, Fla.: 21-year-old left-hander Alex Troop and 20-year-old right-hander Steven Fuentes.

As was the case Tuesday when he participated in a similar workout in Atlanta against two different minor leaguers, Harper looked perfectly normal at the plate. And he said he “felt good” during the session.

And so Harper was asked whether he thinks he’ll be activated off the disabled list in time to play Monday in Philadelphia, or whether a quick trip to Florida for the instructional league might come first.

“We haven’t really ruled out anything,” he said. “If it is instructs or it is up here, just trying to see where I’m at. Talk to (general manager Mike) Rizzo, talk to the trainers, talk to Dusty. We want to win these games still up here, so I don’t want to take anything away from anyone else and things like that. So just go from where we’re at and see where we are the next day.”

Rizzo has said he doesn’t want Harper to return until he’s ready to be “instinctual” on the field, simply play the game without thinking about the knee or calf he injured six weeks ago. Harper suggested he’s ready for that test.

“Yeah, I mean if something’s going to blow, it’s going to blow,” he said. “I’ve always said that. I’m just going to play as hard as I can, like I do, and go from there.”

Reading between the lines, Harper believes he’s ready to play in the big leagues now. So does Goodwin, who didn’t hesitate to say so this afternoon, while at the same time acknowledging that’s not likely to happen.

“I’m feeling really good, I’m feeling really close,” said Goodwin, who has been out since Aug. 13 with a strained groin muscle. “If it was up to me, I’d be going right now. But it’s not, so I’m going to trust my training staff, my coaches, everybody I’ve been working with that knows me and has been working with me and has my best interests in hand. But it shouldn’t be too much (longer).”

Goodwin’s return may hinge more on his ability to run, cut and dive at full speed, because his primary role on the postseason roster would be as a backup outfielder and pinch-runner. Baker has said he believes Goodwin (and Drew, who is trying to return despite a tear in his abdomen) is behind Harper’s schedule to make it back.

Ryan Zimmerman, meanwhile, won’t be playing at all this weekend, due to what Baker termed “general soreness.” The veteran first baseman is expected to return for Monday’s series finale in Philadelphia and play the final week of the regular season.

Update: Stephen Strasburg hasn’t been as sharp tonight as he’s been for the majority of the last two months. Though he made it through his first two innings scoreless, the right-hander had to pitch out of a jam in the first and let the leadoff man reach in the second. Then came a bigger stumble in the third, with the Mets scoring three runs via four hits and a walk. Strasburg, who seemed to have trouble running the bases in the top of the inning, may be once again dealing with something in his lower leg, though it’s not entirely clear.

The Nats lineup, meanwhile, has been shut out for three innings by the unusual tag-team of Noah Syndergaard and Matt Harvey. Syndergaard started the game (his first big league appearance since he tore a lat muscle April 30 in D.C.) and completed a scoreless top of the first on five pitches. But that’s all the Mets planned for the big right-hander tonight. So it was Harvey who took over in the second, and he has thus far posted two scoreless frames to preserve New York’s 3-0 lead heading to the fourth.

Update II: The Nationals have stormed back to tie this game, 3-3, in the fifth. And they’ve done so via a pair of long balls. First it was Adam Lind, who sent a two-run opposite-field shot in the fourth. That’s Lind’s 14th homer of the season, the 200th of his career and the 204th hit by the Nationals this season, establishing a new franchise record. And that record has since been extended to 205 thanks to a solo blast into the right field bullpen by Matt Wieters in the fifth. That was Wieters’ 10th homer of the season, and it means nine different Nats players have hit at least 10 homers this year, a new club record.

Update III: And this game is going to extra innings. That’s because the Nationals couldn’t push across the go-ahead run despite several opportunities against the Mets bullpen. And because the Nats bullpen has been lights-out. Matt Albers, Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson and Sammy Solís each posted a zero, with only one batter reaching base in total against the four of them.

Update IV: Nats win, 4-3 in 10 innings. And who better to deliver the long-awaited big hit than Daniel Murphy, who did it to his former team once again. Murphy’s leadoff homer in the top of the 10th off Jacob Rhame was his ninth homer and 35th RBI in 37 games against the Mets the last two seasons. Sean Doolittle then pitched a scoreless bottom of the 10th to improve to 20-for-20 in save opportunities and finish off a brilliant performance by the Nationals bullpen tonight (five scoreless innings).

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