Bryce Harper returned to the big leagues on Monday night like a cue ball knocking pieces all around the table.
After nine weeks out following surgery to repair a torn left thumb ligament, Harper assumed his customary spot in left field for the Washington Nationals against the Colorado Rockies. But that sent Ryan Zimmerman and his arthritic right shoulder back to third base, which spun Anthony Rendon over to second and deflected second baseman Danny Espinosa to the bench.
Zimmerman comported himself well in left field in Harper's absence and Rendon looked comfortable defensively at his natural position. Espinosa's defense has been stellar even as he continues to pile up strikeouts at the plate at an alarming rate. Watching from afar for two months, Harper offered an opinion on his team's optimal lineup.
"I think [Zimmerman] should be playing left. Rendon is a great third baseman, he should play third and we've got one of the best second basemen in the league in Danny Espinosa," Harper said. "Of course, you want the best hitting lineup in there and I think Rendon playing third and Zim playing left is something that is good for this team and I think that should be what's happening."
Harper's scenario presumably would have him playing center field, a spot he's said in the past that he enjoys. That would also put starter Denard Span on the bench with Espinosa moving back into the field. It's not a bad thing to have too many options, but it will require Washington manager Matt Williams to soothe egos and juggle players' positions as often as possible.
Williams says that process is already under way, though Harper said he found out his position (left field) and spot in the batting order (sixth) via Twitter.
"I have to look at it as what are we going to do tonight to win this game," Williams said. "That's the most important thing. That's what's on my mind. So does that mean that one night [Zimmerman] plays first and the next night he plays left and the next night he plays third? Or [Harper] plays right? What is it? If I had that crystal ball, man, it'd be great. But I don't have one."
That still leaves multiple players arriving at the ballpark each day wondering where they will play. Williams said the benefit is the ability to give veterans like Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth days off. Both men have played extensively this season save for LaRoche's stint on the 15-day disabled list with a quadriceps injury. Werth has played 79 of 83 games and, at age 35, has struggled in June with a .601 OPS.
"[Williams is] the manager so he's gonna handle it the best way he can," Span said. "That's bottom line. He's the boss. Him being an ex-player I'm pretty sure he's gonna handle it as if he were the player. He's not that far removed from the game so I trust that he's gonna do what he thinks is best."
Harper played in just 22 games before tearing the ligament in his thumb sliding into third base during an April 25 game against San Diego. He had a career-high four RBI that night and was batting .289, but with just one home run, when injured. Harper had surgery and returned to the field on a rehab assignment last week for five games.
In his last one, on Saturday with Double-A Harrisburg, Harper hit three home runs. That sealed the decision. He took Sunday off and returned to the Nats on Monday to contribute to what the team hopes will be a run at the NL East title and a second playoff berth in three years.
"I felt good at the plate. That's the only thing I really cared about," Harper said. "I could care less about being on base or the outfield or anything like that. It's always a process. My swing, I felt pretty good and I felt that I was where I needed to be."
But don't assume Harper will change his aggressive style of play. He said before Monday's game that he has no intention of avoiding the type of headfirst slide that caused the injury. He also won't need to wear any added protection for the thumb.
Harper admitted batting sixth wouldn't be his preference if he was the manager, but, for now, just being back on the field is enough. It had been too long.
"I'm in the lineup. That's all that mattered," Harper said. "If I had the lineup it'd maybe not be the same. But [Williams has] got the lineup card, he's got the pen and that's what he's doing. There's nothing I can do about it. I'm hitting sixth and hopefully I can be able to get some runners on base in front of me, get some protection and hopefully get some knocks."
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