Harper will miss his fifth game in a row, his longest sustained time on the bench since he collided with the right field fence at Dodger Stadium on May 13, the source of Harper’s knee pain and swelling.
Thursday night after the Nationals landed in Atlanta, Johnson watched Harper walk off the team plane with a severe limp. He decided then Harper would not play tonight.
“I knew he was in bad shape when I saw him,” Johnson said. “So I knew right then and there that he was out today. It’s bothering him. We’ve got to try to figure out what [to do]. Maybe more rest.”
If Harper does not play this weekend, he will have missed eight days by the time the Nationals return to Nationals Park on Tuesday. Johnson said Harper knee has not swollen to the point it could be drained, but he admitted the Nationals could place Harper on the DL.
“We’ll see how it is after this weekend and then go from there,” Johnson said. “It’s swollen enough to cause him discomfort. I guess the combination of him hitting yesterday and running in the outfield, aggravated it enough to agitate it.”
Harper will be out of the Nationals’ lineup for the 12th time this year. So far, the Nationals are 2-9 without him, with the last 10 of those coming with Jayson Werth also sidelined with an injury. The Nationals have gone with a mix of Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore and Roger Bernadina to replace the two corner outfielders. All solid contributors last season, the trio have respective OPSes of .561, .463 and .484.
“My bench hasn’t done the things that they were doing last year, that they’re certainly capable of doing,” Johnson said. “We just haven’t stepped it up. So having both of them out, it’s a big blow. But again, I look at it as an opportunity for other guys to express their talent and they need to start doing it. We’re not just based on one of two guys. We showed that last year.”
Johnson said he did not know whether rest alone would alleviate the swelling in Harper’s knee, but for now that is the Nationals’ plan. They have treated him with surprisingly little caution at times – he pinch hit two nights after his collision with the wall, and he dragged his left knee through seven innings Sunday after fouling a pitch off it. For now, though, Johnson stressed the need for Harper to fully heal.
“I’ve had knees that were swollen,” Johnson said. ”I had a swollen knee in Japan and I used to drain it myself and prescribe my own treatment. But he’s a tough guy and he would play if at all possible. But he’s too good a talent to take a chance on further injury, so he’s not going out there til it’s better. That’s for dang sure.”
The Nationals this year have frequently played with a short roster, constantly going into games with an injured player not on the disabled list. If Harper indeed misses this weekend, plus Monday’s off day, he’ll have missed eight consecutive days. If the Nationals simply put him on the DL now, they could have an active 25th player for the Braves – perhaps not a necessity, but one more contingency.
That being the case, every game the Nationals can keep Harper active matters – again, they’re 2-9 without him. So for now, they’re still waiting, hoping the swelling in his goes down and that their best, most dynamic player returns.
“I do not like to have to go short-handed,” Johnson said. “When I look at the talent here, there’s not a lot of guys that I have to pinch-hit for. I have confidence that they can do the job. I’m not really platooning anybody. The guys that I would kind of alternate in the past were Tyler Moore and Bernadina. And they both are in the lineup on a daily basis. The options are kind of limited. But I still like my options.”
Werth plans to play seven innings tonight at Class A Potomac, his third straight minor league rehab appearance. Johnson said Werth will hopefully return Tuesday, when the Nationals play the Mets at home.
“He felt really good about how he felt” Thursday night, Johnson said. “Jayson Werth is the best judge of Jayson Werth. We just have to see how much effort, he’s been staying under 90 percent. He’s worried about that last 10 percent coming out of the box.”
>> Ross Detwiler, on the disabled list retroactive to May 16 with a strained oblique, remains shut down and may not be able to return next week. “Until that tightness gets out of there so he can avoid any further injury to him, he’s not going to toe the rubber,” Johnson said. “He says it seems to be getting better, but he still feels something on that side.” Nate Karns will replace Detwiler on Sunday on Atlanta.