NEW YORK — About a week ago, when asked what his team might be looking for as the July 31 trade deadline approaches, Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said he was looking for an impact left-handed bat. There was a guy named Bryce Harper, Rizzo quipped, and “he’s on the horizon.”
Rizzo, and the rest of the Nationals, will likely get their wish on Monday as their 20-year-old outfielder is set to return from a 31-game stay on the disabled list having recovered from the bursitis that plagued his left knee since the middle of May.
Harper finished a rehab assignment with Double-A Harrisburg on Saturday night and told reporters he was excited to get back and help the Nationals make a run at first place.
They’re just as excited to have him.
“That’s a middle-of-the-order hitter,” said catcher Kurt Suzuki. “He’s a definite impact player. Any time you can add a guy like that to your lineup, offensively and defensively, you’re in good shape.”
“He carried us the first couple months,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who has been champing at the bit to get Harper back.
“He was the one guy they saw on the lineup and you have to pitch him tough. Our lineup is built where everybody is tough. It’s going to be good to get him back.”
The Nationals will wait until Monday to announce the move to clear space for Harper on the 25-man roster, but the team is carrying an extra reliever and it’s likely they will send right-hander Erik Davis back to Triple-A Syracuse to give them a more traditional configuration in the bullpen and on the bench.
On a day the Nationals pounded out 13 hits and 13 runs without Harper in the lineup, it was a tantalizing thought to ponder what they could do with him in it.
When Harper is in the Nationals’ starting lineup this season they are 25-18 — a 94-win pace. They are 17-22 when he does not start.
“You take a guy out that’s your two, three, four hitter, whatever, and you’re going to notice it,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche. “Getting him back, good timing here. We just need to keep him out of trouble, keep him away from anything dangerous and he’ll be alright.”
Harper has not played since May 26 after the bursitis in his knee was aggravated by him sliding on it during a game against the Philadelphia Phillies. Harper initially hurt the knee during his violent collision with the right field wall at Dodger Stadium on May 13.
Offensively, Harper was doing so well in the first six weeks of the season that he still leads the team in batting average and is tied for second in home runs with 12. Defensively, it’s been difficult for the Nationals to fill his spot in left field, particularly when he and Jayson Werth had injuries that overlapped.
“Obviously Bryce is a good player,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “When you have a guy who hits in the middle of the order, when he gets hurt and misses time, it’s hard to replace him. Whether it’s him on this team or anyone else who hits three, four, five. There’s not a lot of those guys just hanging around. It’ll be nice to get him back. It definitely makes our team better.”
“Just add his energy, doing what he does,” said center fielder Denard Span. “Some silly stuff, but it’s just his presence. I think it gets everybody going. I think it will be good to have him back tomorrow.”
The Nationals are close to having almost all of their lineup back and healthy. Harper is expected back on Monday, but catcher Wilson Ramos is on track to return as soon as Thursday, too. The Nationals have toiled in inconsistency for much of the season’s first half, but they took a blowout win on Sunday with another dose of good news in Harper’s impending return.
“It means we get our three-hole hitter back,” said shortstop Ian Desmond. Get a lot of energy and a great ballplayer. We’ll take him.”