Maybe what happened late Saturday night, when drizzle and we’ve-got-to-get-this-game-in circumstances combined to leave Bryce Harper treating first base as a shower tile with soap suds all over it, will cost Harper the National League MVP award. Maybe he will only miss, as Manager Dusty Baker suggested, a week to 10 days (though the smart guess is more). That would leave him with, say, a maximum of 140 games played, and it’d be hard to pad his counting stats (homers, RBI) and chase down, say, Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt for what would be Harper’s second best-in-the-league trophy.
But who was thinking that as Harper turned into Simone Biles on Saturday night? No one.
This isn’t 2012, when the Washington Nationals’ appearance atop the NL East standings was a novelty and Harper’s major league debut a revelation. This isn’t 2014, when Harper was about the only Nats hitter prepared for prime time in the playoffs, or even last year, when he was clearly playing through some sort of injury — which he now alludes to — and put up numbers that don’t befit his history or his ability.
This is 2017, what might be Harper’s penultimate season in Washington. It is 2017, when the Nationals — on those rare occasions when they’re fully formed — have their deepest, best, most dangerous team in their history. It is 2017, when every stumble over the first base bag while trying to leg out a hit or an odd waggle of an arm after throwing a pitch is greeted thusly: How does this affect our World Series chances?
“The World Series is definitely on my mind,” Harper said of those first few post-tumble moments. He went on, when he spoke Sunday afternoon, to make what might have been an odd reference to the MVP award. But that’s not why Harper’s here, not why these Nats are here. They know they sent five players, Harper among them, to Miami for last month’s All-Star Game. They also know the rest of baseball looks at them and says, “Take five away from that number, and there’s your franchise’s total playoff series victories.”
The Nats have had a rookie of the year (Harper in 2012) and an MVP (Harper in 2015). They have had a Cy Young winner (Max Scherzer last season) and two managers of the year (Davey Johnson in 2012 and — get this — Matt Williams in 2014). All are points of pride and points of data for a franchise that was built, still not long ago, from ruins. And none are particularly important to the players who currently inhabit the dugout, the clubhouse and — far too frequently — the trainer’s room.
It’s why, when General Manager Mike Rizzo first described the club’s sense of Harper’s bone bruise as, “We’re optimistic that he will be back by the end of the year,” it was reasonable to think, “Wait. He didn’t say, ‘He’ll definitely be ready for the playoffs.’ ”
It’s why Stephen Strasburg’s rehab start Monday night for Class A Potomac will be watched not for what it means next week, but for what it means in two months. It’s why, while it’s commendable that Wilmer Difo has somehow turned into a viable major league player over the past six weeks, it’s impossible not to wonder how Trea Turner’s broken wrist is coming along.
By the way: Has Jayson Werth gone on rehab yet? And what’s up with Koda Glover and Shawn Kelley?
(Answers: Not quite, no idea and he’s working his way back, respectively.)
Know this: These Nats, with Harper and Anthony Rendon and Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman all taking turns as driving forces, still lead the NL in runs scored despite the fact that Difo has appeared in more games than Turner, that Brian Goodwin and Michael A. Taylor and Adam Lind all have more plate appearances than Werth, that Baker fielded a lineup for the first half of Sunday’s doubleheader against San Francisco that featured just one member of the Opening Day starting lineup — Zimmerman.
And so, what we have now is what we have known since April: They’re good. They’re not Dodgers-good, not right now, because no one is that good — not even the Dodgers. But good over 162 games isn’t the same as good over five or seven games, and goodness knows the Nats know that — or, at least, the 2012 and 2014 versions, especially, do.
A telling moment from Sunday, then: When Hunter Strickland, the San Francisco reliever who threw at Harper earlier in the season for transgressions three years ago — those transgressions being Harper’s admiration of his monumental blasts in the playoffs — entered for the Giants in the first game of the doubleheader, the Nationals Park faithful offered full-throated boos. They knew Harper, laid up and placed on the DL earlier Sunday, couldn’t fend for himself. So they fended for him.
But that served as a reminder of what Harper said after Strickland’s ridiculous headhunting incident prompted Bryce to storm the mound in May: “I don’t even think he should be thinking about what happened in the first round [in 2014, when the Giants eliminated the Nats]. He should be thinking about wearing that ring home every single night.”
When the Nats returned from that road trip, Harper told me, “If Strickland could help us win a World Series, I’d be the first person to welcome him in here.” (Strickland allowed Rendon’s two-run home run Sunday, and Rizzo fixed the Nats’ terrible bullpen by landing three back-end relievers before the trade deadline. Still.)
So the goals are obvious, and they override every twist and turn. When is the Nats’ next important game? Sure, the best-in-baseball Dodgers play three games in Washington in mid-September, but who knows what lineups and rotations either team will be fielding at that point, given their division titles are already, essentially, in hand? So that makes the next important game Friday, Oct. 6 — Game 1, division series, almost certainly at Nationals Park, almost certainly against the NL Central champ, which might just make it against the defending world champion Chicago Cubs.
Harper, it seems after Sunday’s news, is likely to be in the lineup for that game. Turner will likely be at shortstop, which would make Difo a weapon (can’t actually believe that’s being typed) off the bench. Werth will likely be in left, making the Howie Kendrick-Adam Lind right-left combo about the best pinch-hitting duo the postseason will have. Strasburg could be lined up for Game 2, following Scherzer’s inevitable postseason opener, which pushes Gio Gonzalez and his 2.59 ERA to Game 3.
“A lot of the guys in that clubhouse who are hurt right now are working as hard as they can to get back, and I think they will be back,” Harper said. “They’ve done a great job being teammates, going into the clubhouse and doing their job and getting things done. I’m one of those guys right now that’s going to try to get back as quickly as possible in my mind and try to do everything I can to get better every day, stay strong, stay sharp and get back — hopefully soon.”
Not for the MVP. Not for a win or a loss on a given night, because the 4-2 loss Sunday afternoon and the 6-2 extra-inning win Sunday night — they don’t much matter, not right now, not to this team, not with an in-the-teens lead and no viable threat in the division. What matters is that Harper’s horrific 100-foot trip on Saturday night ended not in disaster but rather in disruption, and it impacts only August, and maybe September, but almost certainly not what matters to this team and that player most, and that is unequivocally October.