MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

With Harper, Nationals can exhale ... a little

Outfielder will be missed, but team is fortunate knee injury isn't worse

With Harper, Nationals can exhale ... a little

To use Joe Maddon's term, Bryce Harper was respecting 90 on Saturday night, busting it down the first-base line in damp conditions after a three-hour rain delay.

It was a great effort by a great player, and it shouldn't have ended with Harper sprawled in the outfield grass, grabbing his left knee in agony. But as Harper raced to try to beat first baseman Ryder Jones and Jeff Samardzija to the bag he hit the bag awkwardly, and now we don't know when he'll play again.

Not exactly the news the Nationals needed. Nor anyone who loves baseball.

Harper has gone on the disabled list, but at this point, the Nats aren't complaining about that. The star had to be helped off the field, and he immediately went for treatment and examination. After the game, the Nationals diagnosed the injury as a hyperextended knee, which explained his extreme level of pain, but they sent him for an MRI just to make sure there wasn't anything more severe compounding the situation. It appears the initial diagnosis was correct. An MRI on his knee did not show a ligament tear, and the diagnosis of a bone bruise as a result of hyperextending the knee should bring at least some relief for Washington fans.

Nats GM Rizzo on Harper's injury

That said, we'll all understand if the Nationals hold their breath until Harper is back on the field with his quick bat, his fast feet and his strong arm. There are many things to like about the Nats. But since 2012, the biggest of those has been Harper, who believe it or not is already in his sixth season.

Time flies, doesn't it?

Here's hoping that it won't be long until we're looking back on the Nationals' scary Saturday night like it was just a blip on the radar, and not a season-changing event.

The postseason is coming in seven weeks and it will be better for all over us -- well, maybe not the Dodgers or Cubs (although Maddon's team has enough to worry about in its own clubhouse) -- if Harper comes off the DL in time to build a head of steam as the Nationals go in search of their elusive championship.

Harper has been at his best in 2017, putting his name into the argument for a second National League MVP Award in his age-24 season. The Nationals built their double-digit division lead with big contributions up and down their deep, well-constructed lineup, but Harper's always the most dynamic player on the field.

Harper is hitting .326 with 29 home runs, 87 RBIs and a 1.034 OPS while playing a strong right field (fifth among regulars with a 6.1 UZR/150 rating). You can't replace that type of a player.

This is a critical season for the Nationals for a variety of reasons, chief among them being that after October they may only get one more try to win a championship behind Harper. He will be a free agent after 2018, and he has long been the subject of rumors linking him to the Yankees and other high-revenue teams.

Harper was only 19 when the Nats won 96 games in 2012. It was easy to think that he and Stephen Strasburg would be part of multiple World Series teams, but Washington still hasn't won a postseason series since Walter Johnson won Game 7 in 1924.

This is supposed to be the season the Nats erase the disappointments of losing the NL Division Series three times and missing the postseason twice after their arrival five years ago.

Ryan Zimmerman's torrid start, the hitting of Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon behind Harper and the steady pitching of Max Scherzer have helped offset a season-ended knee injury to Adam Eaton in late April and two lengthy disabled list stints for Trea Turner. The Nats haven't been challenged in the NL East, giving Mike Rizzo and Dusty Baker the luxury of planning for October.

Throughout the season the Nats have faced major bullpen issues, but that's been addressed with trades for Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler.

Harper injures knee

There's been no way to stop the run of injuries, however. Michael Taylor's strained oblique forced Baker to use Brian Goodwin as his third option in center fielder, although Taylor was activated to take Harper's spot on the roster. Left fielder Jayson Werth remains out with a balky left foot.

Even with a big lead, baseball remains risky business. A manager can't put his players in bubble wrap just because his team has a comfortable lead.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch was talking about this the other day, saying his message to Houston is the same as it has always been, that it's important to win every game.

"I don't want to give our team the temperament that we're trying to bleed off the season,'' Hinch said. "My message since 2015 has been, 'Try to win today's game,' so I don't think I could really go back and say, 'Today we're just going to try to get through the game like a Spring Training game, if we win fine, if we don't fine.' I feel like I have to be true to what my message has been the whole time.''

There are so many things you can't control in baseball, with injuries at the top of the list. It's silly to say that Nationals manager Dusty Baker should have been protecting Harper because of the spotty conditions that came with a late start after a Friday rainout.

There's no question that circumstances weren't ideal with drizzle still falling, but teams play in a lot worse weather than this -- especially in October. That's when the Nats will play the games that will define their 2017 season, if not the entire Harper era.

It would be a huge blow not to have Harper up and rolling when they play the NL Central champs in the NLDS. But the Nats are hopeful he'll be fine, and once he is he'll be back to playing hard, which is always the right way to play.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.