The Nationals have sent four players to play left field since May 26, but they never really replaced Bryce Harper. How could they? The Nationals have played more than a month without their best player, a 20-year-old force of nature who looked like an MVP candidate until he met the left field wall at Dodger Stadium, the lone foe that slowed him down this year.
Harper will return to the Nationals on Monday after missing 31 games in his first career trip to the disabled list with left knee bursitis. The Nationals went 15-16 without him. They have gone 25-18 – a 94-win pace – when he starts, and against the Brewers and right-hander Yovani Gallardo, the Nationals will slide his bat back into the third spot in the order at Nationals Park.
“Just add his energy, doing what he does,” center fielder Denard Span said. “Some silly stuff. But just his presence, I think it gets everybody going. I think it will be good to have him back tomorrow.”
Manager Davey Johnson did specify how the Nationals would make room for Harper on the roster. He said the Nationals would likely send down a pitcher, and the most likely candidate seems to be Erik Davis, the reliever the Nationals recalled Saturday morning.
Harper will bat third, and Johnson hinted he will return to the lineup he used opening day. That would mean Jayson Werth moving up to the second spot in the order and Anthony Rendon moving down, possibly all the way to seventh behind Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond.
“I’ll figure out how to get it back together, but I still like how I had it originally lined up,” Johnson said.
Last week, General Manager Mike Rizzo compared Harper’s return to a major acquisition at the trade deadline. Werth used the same analogy, albeit with a somewhat cryptic take.
“We’ll see which Bryce shows up,” Werth said. “Of course, getting Bryce back will be huge. How many teams would like to acquire a power, left-handed bat and an outfielder who plays with his hair on fire? If he plays with his hair on fire. Like I said, we’ll see which Bryce shows up.”
The Nationals’ offense ranks among the least productive in the majors, their 13-run outburst Sunday notwithstanding. Harper, who is hitting .287/.386/.587, will help that. His outfield defense will also provide a significant upgrade, so long as he can avoid those walls.
“We just need to keep him out of trouble, keep him away from anything dangerous and he’ll be all right,” LaRoche said.
Saturday night, Harper completed a four-game rehab assignment in which he went 4 for 11 with three walks, a homer, a triple and a double. His knee held up as he sprinted around the bases and played with his usual hustle.
“When you have a guy who hits in the middle of your order, when he gets hurt and misses some time, it’s hard to replace him,” Zimmerman said. “Whether it’s him on this team or anyone else who hits 3-4-5. There’s not a lot of those guys just kind of hanging around. It’ll be nice to get him back. It definitely makes our team better.”