Bryce Harper’s batting practice sessions are infrequent treats for the masses. They are extravagant shows in ferocity, power displays a handful of people on the planet are capable of staging. And they are rare because Harper usually opts to take batting practice in a cage, not on a field.
But Sunday afternoon, a few hours before the gates opened at Nationals Park for a prime-time matchup between National League powers, Harper was taking batting practice on the field because it was a requirement. It wasn’t to play later that night against the Dodgers. This session was more important than that: This session represented a significant step in his recovery from a significant bone bruise in his left leg and in the Nationals’ championship hopes.
Donning Under Armour apparel, from his camouflage T-shirt to his red leggings, and an all-black Nationals trucker cap over his mane, Harper took batting practice for the first time since slipping on a wet first base the night of Aug. 12. He said he didn’t feel completely like himself — not because of the knee but because of the rust that has accumulated over the past month on the disabled list.
“It takes me a while to get my timing going,” Harper said. “I hit a lot in the offseason to get ready for spring training, so that I’m ready to go. It’s definitely going to be a tough thing. If we play Chicago, I might be facing Jon Lester for my first at-bat in six weeks. That’s a tough task. It’s going to take some time. Hopefully, I can get back and get going a little sooner than later.”
General Manager Mike Rizzo, hitting coach Rick Schu and assistant hitting coach Jacque Jones observed Harper’s session from behind the cage. Two members of the Nationals’ training staff watched as well. Teammates stopped to watch from the dugout. They watched in awe as Harper sprayed baseballs around the ballpark. He deposited an assortment of them to the seats and crushed line drives, putting the group of pitchers stretching in right field on notice. They screamed in jest with each liner that went their way.
One ball landed near the top of the second deck in right-center field. Another ricocheted off the batter’s eye’s wall beyond the wall in straightaway center field. He ended the session with a moonshot to right-center field. After it landed, he clapped his hands once as he walked to the mound to start picking up baseballs.
“He looked really good,” Schu said. “Awesome. He used his legs and didn’t hold anything back. It looks like he didn’t miss a beat.”
It wasn’t, however, a normal batting practice session. It was a slower paced, more methodical exercise than usual. Harper wasn’t receiving pitches in rapid succession. Instead, he would take breaks between ferocious hacks. Between sessions he watched fellow disabled list member Stephen Drew take swings alongside Drew’s two sons. One of the children challenged Harper to flip a Gatorade bottle onto its top. Harper tried several times and couldn’t.
“I felt a little off, still,” Harper said. “Not my knee, per se, but more just myself. It’s going to take some time to get back. … Got a long ways to go and hopefully be back soon.”
Harper had been hitting in the case over the last week. He also ramped up his running; on Friday, he ran along the warning track from pole to pole in the outfield. Harper said he isn’t sure what the next step is. The Nationals will reportedly fly pitchers from their instructional league team in Florida to throw to Harper in simulated games before he’s thrust into real action. The objective is to have Harper accumulate in-game at-bats during the regular season before Game 1 of the National League Division Series, which is scheduled for Oct. 6.
“I hope so,” Harper said when asked if he’ll be ready for the playoff opener. “That’s definitely in my head. That’s what I want to do. That’s where I want to be. But it takes time. Just trying to do the best I can to get out here and do the things I can to get back and get ready, and see where it’s at.”
Chris Taylor CF
Corey Seager SS
Justin Turner 3B
Cody Bellinger 1B
Yasiel Puig RF
Curtis Granderson LF
Logan Forsythe 2B
Hyun-Jin Ryu LHP
Trea Turner SS
Jayson Werth RF
Anthony Rendon 3B
Daniel Murphy 2B
Ryan Zimmerman 1B
Howie Kendrick LF
Michael A. Taylor CF
Matt Wieters C
Stephen Strasburg RHP