Bryce Harper passes his first test in return to action

PHILADELPHIA -- Bryce Harper’s biggest impact in his return to the Washington Nationals’ starting lineup will come in the batter’s box. But the first true test in his comeback came out in the pasture.

With two outs in the bottom of the first inning Tuesday night, Philadelphia’s Aaron Altherr ripped a line drive down the right-field line. As the ball bounced into the corner, Harper sprinted to retrieve it, stopped, pivoted and unleashed a one-hop throw to second base.

Altherr slid in easily with a double, and the rest of Harper’s night was uneventful. That was a perfectly welcome occurrence, given the periods of anxiety, solitude and determination that preceded his return.

Six weeks after he injured his left knee while crossing a wet first-base bag, Harper will settle for uneventful. Washington manager Dusty Baker has called it “a miracle” that Harper escaped with a deep bone bruise in his left knee and is back after missing 41 games, with a week to go in the regular season.

Now Harper needs to regain his timing at the plate and shake off the residual rust that is a byproduct of spring training in September. The worst-case scenarios still occupy a small place in the back of his mind, and they’re not pretty.

“It was definitely exciting to get out there and play a game,” Harper said after a 4-1 loss to the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. “When something like that happens, you never know if you’re going to be back. [I think about] how hard my trainers and the workout staff worked and how hard I worked to get back. I felt good to be out there.”

While Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmerman and some other Washington regulars are enjoying the perks of a 21-game division lead by taking some manager-mandated downtime for “general soreness,” Harper is taking a crash course in October preparation. He needs to ramp things up relatively quickly in preparation for Washington’s pending Division Series matchup with the Chicago Cubs while keeping his natural exuberance in check so that he doesn’t incur a setback that might put his postseason participation at risk.

Baker plugged Harper into the second spot in the batting order Tuesday, as opposed to the No. 3 hole, in hopes that Harper might be able to snag an extra at-bat early and call it a night. That’s precisely how things unfolded.

Harper saw a total of 12 pitches from Philadelphia’s Jake Thompson in three plate appearances. He walked on four straight fastballs in the first inning, struck out on a changeup in his second at-bat and popped out on another changeup to end the top of the fifth. At that point, Baker decided he had seen enough positive signs and pulled Harper for Victor Robles in right field.

The sight of Harper busting it into the corner on Altherr’s double was enough to show his teammates that his mind is clear and he isn't favoring the knee. Harper also suffered a calf strain in his Aug. 12 mishap against San Francisco, and every time he sprints, slides or changes direction, a lot of people in the Washington dugout will be paying attention. At this point, the simple act of standing in the outfield for nine innings is a bit of a test.

“It makes you feel good when you see Bryce hustling to get that ball," said Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez, the losing pitcher Tuesday. “I understand his situation. You might want to let up. That’s understandable. The fact that he busted his tail to get there speaks to his character and how bad he wants to be here and participate. Bryce doesn’t have an 'off' switch. If anything, he just finds a way to turn it up even more.”

Harper has a .211/.318/.509 slash line in the postseason, and the Nationals have lost all three of their Division Series appearances since 2012, so he doesn’t need any extra motivation. Cliché as it sounds, he’s in day-by-day mode at the moment. Harper said he planned to get up Wednesday morning, assess how he feels and then confer with Baker and the training staff on his next step.

If it’s all good, he’ll be back in the lineup against Mark Leiter Jr. for the finale of the Nationals-Phillies series. If not, he’ll rest his knee and try again Thursday against Pittsburgh at Nationals Park.

“I’m not all that worried about what he does in these [six] games," Washington general manager Mike Rizzo said. “I just want him to get his at-bats, run around the bases a little bit and get a feel for playing baseball again. Then the slate goes clean, and we start over again. That’s the biggest thing for me -- for his baseball IQ to kick in and for him to do instinctive things and take his full mind off his knee and his calf and just focus on playing baseball.”

By that definition, Bryce Harper's first game back was a success. He'll find out in the coming days whether his body is ready to cooperate with the game plan.