When Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy crossed paths in the home clubhouse at Nationals Park on Sunday morning, the all-stars embraced for a lengthy hug. They hadn’t seen each other in a few weeks because Murphy had been away on a rehab assignment, putting his surgically repaired right knee through the rigors of game action at the Class AA level. Now, it appears, they’ll see each other on an everyday basis again.
Nationals Manager Dave Martinez on Sunday danced around committing to a return date for Murphy but confirmed the second baseman was set to travel with the club to New York, where the Nationals will begin a five-game road trip Tuesday against the Yankees. The Nationals could presumably activate Murphy, who hasn’t played this season after undergoing microfracture surgery on his right knee in October, this week and ease him back in with a lighter load this weekend as their designated hitter against two American League ballclubs: the Yankees and Blue Jays. Martinez wouldn’t confirm that’s the plan, but he also didn’t deny it was a possibility.
“We’re going to talk again [Monday],” Martinez said. “And it’s totally where he feels comfortable and how he feels comfortable and if he feels like he’s ready.”
The 33-year-old Murphy appeared in 10 rehab games for the Harrisburg Senators, batting .243 with an .823 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 44 plate appearances. But hitting wasn’t his concern, and his early struggles at the plate weren’t knee-related. It was a matter of rust, which he progressively knocked off with more reps. On Friday, for example, he went 2 for 3 with two walks and a home run. He said it was the best he has felt in the batter’s box, timing-wise.
The final obstacle has been his mobility, both in the field and on the base paths. In that game Friday, Murphy jogged with a hitch but sprinted rather normally. Defensively, he planted his right foot for throws to complete a couple of routine plays.
On Sunday, he took turns taking ground balls at second base with Wilmer Difo. The grounders didn’t test his range much, but he moved without any apparent problem. He then took batting practice and sprayed line drives around the diamond.
“I thought he made a big improvement, yeah,” Martinez said. “Like I said before, I think now there’s nothing wrong with the knee. He knows that. It’s a mind-over-matter deal now. We talked today and, for me, it’s more once he gets here and he starts playing, I think he’ll forget about everything and just go out and play. But that’s totally up to him and what he feels comfortable [doing].”
Because he’s a position player, Murphy’s rehab assignment is limited to 20 days, giving him through Thursday to play in minor league games. If Washington decides to activate him this week, he’ll probably replace utility infielder Adrian Sanchez on the roster. That would leave the Nationals with only Trea Turner and Difo as capable shortstops. The Nationals would have limited middle-infield options, particularly if Murphy has trouble defensively.
But if Murphy can rediscover his offensive prowess, he’ll provide the Nationals another dangerous middle-of-the-order threat, lengthening a lineup that was already bolstered over the weekend when Adam Eaton returned following a two-month absence. Washington would be getting a former MVP runner-up with a .334 batting average and .956 OPS in two seasons as a National. That’s worth a hug.
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