- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Nationals were expected to wait until Sunday night before they began to make news. The Washington Redskins were out West, playing the Rams in L.A., and the rest of the NFL was moving through a second week of the schedule filled with pleasant weather. The Nationals were wrapping a three-games series with the Los Angeles Dodgers at 8 p.m. on national television.

But, not long after the Redskins kicked off in L.A., Bryce Harper was on the field at Nationals Park. This would be a rare sight if Harper was healthy since he typically takes batting practice indoors. It was an even more eye-opening sight Sunday afternoon.

Harper hit deep fly ball after deep fly ball. By some estimations, he hit six into the right-field upper deck during his first on-field batting practice session since hyperextending and bruising his left knee when slipping on first base Aug. 12. Harper’s chances at playing in the postseason appeared to evaporate as he flew through the air that night. His work the last week suggests a growing chance at a return in time for Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Oct. 6.

“That’s definitely in my head,” Harper said. “That’s what I want to do. That’s where I want to be. But, it takes time. Just trying to do the best I can to get out here and do the things I can to get back and get ready, and see where it’s at.”

The Nationals’ offense has been in a decided funk since Harper’s injury. In August, the Nationals were 10th in on-base plus slugging percentage in the National League. In September, they were 13th. They were third in June and fifth in July.

If Harper can return, he would again stretch the Nationals’ lineup into one of the most dangerous in baseball. After reliever Brandon Kintzler was acquired from the Minnesota Twins in a trade, one of the things he mentioned was that the Nationals had an “American League lineup.” With Harper, that is much closer to the truth.

Harper ran from foul pole to foul pole Thursday. He ran around the bases Saturday. Sunday, he lightly jogged to first base. He is trying to find a basic rhythm with his body, not just where he was injured.

“I felt a little off, still,” Harper said. “Not my knee, per se, but more just myself. It’s going to take some time to get back. Got a long ways to go and hopefully be back soon.”

There is a blueprint from last season for a player who was presumed lost for the season to return and play during the game’s biggest and most difficult moments. Chicago’s Kyle Schwarber was injured April 7, 2016, in an on-field collision. His next major-league at-bat was in Game 1 of the World Series. Harper’s situation is not that extreme. But, the possibility of his first at-bat in almost two months coming in the playoffs is a real one, which is better than it coming next March when the 2017 season starts.

“If we play Chicago, I might be facing Jon Lester for my first at-bat in six weeks,” Harper said. “That’s a tough task. It’s going to take some time. Hopefully I can get back and get going a little sooner than later.”

Thom Loverro contributed to this report

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