Davey Johnson ambled into the dining room in the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse early Monday afternoon, laid eyes on his 20-year-old outfielder and smiled.
Harper smiled. “I’m ready,” he told his manager.
Thirty-one games after he was last in the lineup for the Nationals, Harper was activated from the disabled list Monday and slotted back into the No. 3 spot in the order, homering in his first at-bat. His presence on the lineup card alone was enough to entirely change the dynamic of the Nationals’ construction.
“I’m excited to get going,” Harper said, wearing a backwards cap and a red shirt that read, “When you wanna succeed as much as you wanna breathe.”
“I’m excited to be back out there on the field and back on this club,” he added. “I’m really looking forward to tonight.”
With Harper back, the Nationals went back to the type of lineup they had at the season’s outset but have been rarely able to use since because of various injuries.
Jayson Werth moved back into the No. 2 spot and second baseman Anthony Rendon, who had filled that slot beautifully the past 15 games, dropped into the No. 7 spot.
Suddenly, the Nationals’ lineup looked a whole lot longer.
“It was fun thinking about it last night,” Johnson said of getting as close to having the team’s Opening Day lineup together as he has in months. “When I came in, [hitting coach] Rick Eckstein had it written out for me. I said, ‘Yeah, that’s where we’re going.’ It is fun.”
Johnson opted to put Werth back in the No. 2 spot for a number of reasons, but mostly because of his history as a player who gets on base consistently and because of Harper’s comfort hitting behind Werth in the lineup.
At this point in their respective careers, Johnson felt Werth has a little bit more pop in his bat for that spot, to put more pressure on opposing managers, and Rendon could provide better protection for shortstop Ian Desmond than he’s had for much of the year.
“I want them to give the opposing manager pause before he brings in his bullpen, a left-hander, to go through those three left-handers in the first five [in the lineup],” Johnson said. “It’s not a slap at Rendon at all. The other guy’s got a proven track record.”
As for Harper, his tour through the minor leagues gave him the added confidence that he has largely put his battle with bursitis in his left knee behind him.
Harper played in four rehab games with Nationals minor league affiliates and pushed himself to fully test his knee. He came away pleased.