Moby’s “Flower” thumped over the public address system at Pfitzner Stadium, the crowd roasting on aluminum bleachers hollered and rang cowbells and the bearded, bulked-up on-deck hitter kissed his black bat before he walked 10 paces toward home plate. Almost two months since his last at-bat, Bryce Harper dug into the batter’s box.
Harper returned to the field for the first time since he tore a ligament in his left thumb April 26, playing three innings in left field Monday night at Class A Potomac. Harper went 1 for 1 with a walk and made the only play he had a chance at in the field. He felt vibrations on his surgically repaired thumb, but nothing that will stop him from continuing his rehab with five innings in center field Tuesday night.
Harper planned to see many pitches, wanting to regain his timing and hone his batting eye. But a mix of excitement and competitive instincts overtook him. He hacked at the first pitch Salem right-hander Justin Haley threw him.
“It’s exciting,” Harper said. “I love this game. I love coming out here and playing. Being around the minor league guys, it’s a lot of fun. I’ve know a lot of these guys and I’ve played with a lot of them. It’s fun to get back out here and just be competitive and try to win a game.”
Batting behind Harper in Potomac’s lineup was rehabbing catcher Wilson Ramos, which in the third inning created a scene that would fill a Nationals fan with joy. With Harper on first after his walk, Ramos lined a three-run home run down the right field line.
As Ramos trotted home, Harper waited to high-five him. Once Ramos crossed the plate, Harper jokingly told him, “You’re terrible.” Ramos, who went 3 for 4 and also smacked a double, smiled at Harper laughed on the way back to the dugout.
“We need Willy up there,” Harper said. “He’s one of the best-hitting catchers in the league when he’s hot.”
Harper is expected to play between seven and nine minor league rehab games before he returns to the Nationals on or around July 1. Harper will play all three outfield positions to prepare to fit into a fluid Nationals lineup upon his return. Tuesday night, Harper is scheduled to play center field – his preferred position – for five innings at Potomac.
Manager Matt Williams has said Harper will play all three outfield positions during his rehab appearance to prepare him for moving around the outfield once he returns. Harper pointed out that changing positions on the fly contributed to his nasty collision with the right field wall in Los Angeles last season.
“I kind of like it and I kind of don’t,” Harper said. “I want to get comfortable in one spot. I kind of got in trouble last year playing right field and getting hurt. So I think trying to stay in one spot would be great. But with the outfield we have, I don’t think that’s going to happen. Being able to play left, play center, play right is something I need down here.”
At the plate, Harper ripped a line drive single on Haley’s 2-2 pitch in his first at-bat. He felt minor pain in his thumb on contact, but nothing that worried him. “I think that’s typical,” Harper said. “I felt good up there.” In his second at-bat, Harper fell behind, 0-2, and drew a walk in his second.
“I felt fine,” Harper said. “I felt good. I just want to see pitches. If I can work deep in counts and see more pitches, that’s huge for me. I just want to see a lot of pitches.”
In left field, Harper made a routine catch of the only ball hit to him. He does not require any padding or a different mitt on defense. But Harper is still adjusting to the way his thumb feels in his glove, pulled apart from his other fingers.
“That’s just something I have to try to feel and deal with,” Harper said. “If it gets swollen, then I need to deal with that and take it easy a little bit more. Play it by ear every single day and see where I’m at.”
On the bases, Harper covered his left hand with the same pad Ryan Zimmerman has worn over his right thumb, a thick, black glove that looks like a miniature over mitt.
“We’re gonna go bake,” Harper said.
As Harper returned to the field, Ramos took another step in his rehab, catching a full nine innings for the first time since he landed on the disabled list. Ramos grounded into a 6-4-3 double play in his first at-bat, blasted a three-run homer in his second, singled in his third and drilled a double down the left field line in his fourth.
“I’m good, man,” Ramos said. “My legs feel good. After the double, I felt like I’m ready to go to the big leagues again. I was trying to hit a double in any of those at-bats and feel my legs, see how they feel. And it feels great. I was trying to hit the ball far and try to run to second base.”
Ramos strained his hamstring June 10 in San Francisco stretching a single into a double. Ramos can come off the disabled list Thursday, and the Nationals expect him to join them then in Chicago. He’ll play another nine innings Wednesday as a final tune-up.
Ramos had no issues behind the plate, although he air-mailed a throw into center field trying to catch a base stealer.
Ramos has landed on the disabled list with a hamstring strain three times in two years, and the Nationals have instructed him not to exert himself on the bases. When he grounded into a 6-4-3 double play in his first at-bat, Ramos lightly jogged down the line. After his single, Ramos jogged about 30 feet before peeling off the base line.
“Easy out, I don’t want to put pressure on my leg,” Ramos said.