SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Bob Nightengale breaks down the hottest teams in MLB and players that could be traded in the near future. USA TODAY Sports
WASHINGTON — Bryce Harper’s left knee did not succumb in the waning, rain-swept hours of Saturday evening. Nor did the very real World Series hopes of his Washington Nationals.
Yet even as Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo declared Sunday morning that Harper suffered only a “significant bone bruise,” and no structural damage to his knee in an ugly engagement with the first base bag the night before, the unique challenge facing Harper and the Nationals became evident.
Harper faces a tight, but manageable window to return for the final days of the regular season, playoffs and, hopefully, the World Series.
The Nationals, meanwhile, will have about a month to integrate nearly an entire lineup of infirm players from the disabled list.
For a team running away with their division, and facing six weeks of what could largely be meaningless baseball, they will not lack for drama.
Now, much of it will revolve around Harper.
He insisted on testing his knee only moments after his injury Saturday, performing his own stress tests in the clubhouse and figuring, “If it buckles, it buckles.” He then stayed up deep into the early hours of Sunday morning to undergo an MRI and learn the results.
The verdict: He can still have it all — a playoff run, a World Series berth, perhaps a second NL Most Valuable Player award.
Sunday afternoon, between games of the Nationals’ doubleheader with the Giants, Harper let loose on all of the above, and more.
“The World Series is definitely on my mind,” Harper said after the Nationals’ 4-2 loss to San Francisco. “Playoffs, things like that.
“One award is on my mind, as well. You guys know what that is. It’s a big one to me. Definitely team accolades come in front of my own, but I’m striving toward it.”
Can Harper, 24, win an MVP with a virtually invisible stretch drive? It’s not entirely without precedent; Texas Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton sat out the final 32 games of the 2010 season and still claimed AL MVP Honors.
Harper’s belted 29 home runs, and his .326/.419/.645 slash line is second only to his 2015 MVP season, when he hit a career-best 42 home runs. The Nationals’ body of work also speaks loudly.
At 69-46, with a 13½-game lead in the NL East, the Nationals are a lock to bring home their fourth division title in six seasons. With Harper, their five-time All-Star right fielder, set to test free agency after the 2018 season, this year and next were widely viewed as their best window to deliver a World Series championship.
That 2017 window, however, is getting tighter.
“We’ve got some significant WAR on the disabled list right now,” Rizzo said before Sunday’s game, “and we’re still playing extremely well.”
Their season-long paradox — lose a player, keep winning — could eventually be a playoff problem, though.
Barring complications, a timetable of four to six weeks is reasonable for Harper’s injury, a clock that, at worst, would get him in a handful of regular season games, with another week to gear up before the National League Division Series commences Oct. 6.
Monday night, right-hander Stephen Strasburg will make a minor league rehab start as he aims to return next weekend from a nerve impingement in his throwing elbow. Strasburg hasn’t pitched for the Nationals since July 23, one year after a flexor mass strain ended his season a month before their NLDS ouster at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Shortstop Trea Turner is about ready to start hitting in his return from a broken right wrist. But even if Turner returns with a full month of major league games remaining, wrist injuries are notoriously vexing even after they’re healed.
The outfield? Lest we forget, leadoff man Eaton suffered a season-ending knee injury in April. Jayson Werth is making his way back from a broken foot. And Harper’s injury necessitated the activation of Michael A. Taylor, whose oblique injury created an opportunity for the emergence of Brian Goodwin.
Rizzo rightfully lauds the organizational depth that enabled the club to absorb the aforementioned body blows. Baker prefers to see the upside of rested veterans for September and October.
“It will be like getting a fresh new team down the stretch,” Baker said. “Miles on your body — you don’t get them back.
“I believe in the cavalry.”
Harper, however, is far from your average dragoon. And the sight of him crumpled on the moist turf of Nationals Park raised the unfathomable specter of playing the postseason without him.
“Because of the athleticism, the youth, and Harper is extremely flexible in his joints, it was something that worked in his favor,” says Rizzo.
Said Baker: “We don’t know how long he will be out. But he will be back before the end of the season. We’re not going to rush him, because we want him healthy.”
Harper agreed. Just six weeks and one season away from free agency and perhaps baseball’s first $400 million contract, he was in a fairly salty mood Sunday, ripping the elements under which he was injured — dictated by Major League Baseball, in this case — and bemoaning the lack of a roof over Nationals Park.
As for that playing hurt thing? Well, he oft refused to acknowledge he did just that during a subpar 2016. In addressing his return from this malady, he noted that playing hurt is something he’s done — and will no longer do, barring playoff-type situations.
“If I feel good, I’m going to play. I want to be at 100% when I’m out there,” he said. “I’ve played through injury before, and I’m not going to do that anymore in my career.”
Spoken like a player who saw his 2017 hopes flash before his eyes — only for all to remain intact once he hit the ground.
“You always think the worst,” he says. “I think I’m going to die every time I have a stomach ache. It’s definitely a bad feeling. I was kind of worried about my shoulders, my hips, my ribs.
“It was definitely a pretty epic fall.”
The comeback still could be all the more epic.