RICHMOND — While the Washington Nationals were hosting the San Francisco Giants Friday night, Daniel Murphy, their all-star second baseman, was on another baseball field in the region, three hours south at The Diamond, putting his surgically-repaired right knee through another test where the clubs’ Class AA affiliates were playing.
In his ninth game with the Harrisburg Senators, Murphy looked like himself at the plate, resembling the dangerous, launch-angle-happy hitting machine that starred for the Nationals the past two seasons, though his timing was a little off. Batting third and wearing No. 6 against the Richmond Flying Squirrels, the 2016 NL MVP runner-up finished 2 for 3 with a tie-breaking solo home run, two walks and two runs scored in the Senators’ 8-7 win.
Outside the batter’s box, however, was a different matter. The 33-year-old Murphy, who underwent microfracture surgery on his right knee in October, jogged with an obvious hitch onto and off the field, and on the base paths, including during his home run trot. He appeared less inhibited when he sprinted, as when he went from second to third and then from third to home to score in the third inning, but didn’t stop as quickly as he normally did pre-surgery.
A scout in attendance had seen Murphy play several times since he started his rehab assignment and noted that he hadn’t seen Murphy slide yet. He surmised that Murphy is moving with some hesitance. Murphy insisted he isn’t dealing with any pain in the knee and the running will improve with time.
“There’s no discomfort,” Murphy said. “I think probably my default [jogging] position is a little too high, but when I sprint, I get athletic. So, to me, it’s just reinforcing, I think, that my knee is healthy. Hopefully, as I continue jogging and slowing down, that’ll get more normal. But I’m not too concerned with it because I don’t feel any discomfort. I think that’ll come. I went seven months without running so it might take a little bit.”
At second base, Murphy cleanly fielded a couple of routine ground balls. He didn’t hesitate to plant his right leg and make strong throws. But his range and lateral mobility weren’t tested. He was replaced at second base in the eighth inning.
By then, Murphy had displayed his sweet left-handed stroke and keen strike-zone awareness. He cracked a line drive that was caught by the first baseman before he could even drop his bat in his first at-bat. In his second plate appearance, he fouled off five pitches before drawing a nine-pitch walk and eventually came around to score. He lofted a first-pitch bloop single to right field his next time up and walked on seven pitches in his fourth chance.
Then, in his final at-bat, Murphy stroked a solo home run to right field with two outs in the eighth inning to snap a 7-7 tie. The performance upped his batting average to .265 during his rehab assignment.
“Today was probably the best I’ve felt in there, as far as my decision-making and being able to repeat my swing,” Murphy said. “It’s taken a bit. I guess spring training is necessary. I just haven’t had an at-bat since the NLDS against the Cubs. So it definitely took some time.”
Murphy began his rehab assignment on May 26. Per rules, position players’ assignments can last no longer than 20 days, meaning Murphy’s will have to end by June 14. Washington can activate him by then or keep him on the 10-day disabled list after the date.
For now, Murphy is expected to play in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader before being reevaluated, keeping with a pattern of two-game bursts followed by evaluations. When he will return to the Nationals remains unclear, but he believes he’s making progress.
“I’m not the first person in history to get hurt or to even go through this,” Murphy said. “Plenty of guys have had microfracture surgery and have been able to come back. I think it’s kind of just respecting the process and wanting to make sure that when I come back I don’t go on the DL for anything knee-related and I feel like right now I’m trending in that direction.
“In a perfect world, I would’ve been ready Opening Day, or any day yesterday, basically. But I would be doing a disservice to the ballclub if I came back too early.”