WASHINGTON -- Bryce Harper's timing at the plate was still a concern to Nationals manager Dusty Baker ahead of Game 1 of the National League Division Series presented by T-Mobile versus the Cubs, but the skipper's apprehension was put to rest shortly after the game's first pitch.
Harper dug his personalized cleats with "Pray for Vegas" emblazoned on the side into the batter's box dirt at Nationals Park on Friday night in the game's opening frame. He promptly laced a single into right field for what was ultimately one of two hits the Nationals mustered off Chicago starter Kyle Hendricks in the Nationals' 3-0 loss.
Harper, batting second and donning the custom spikes in honor of the victims of Sunday's tragic mass shooting in his hometown of Las Vegas, took a pair of pitches out of the zone to begin his initial 2017 postseason at-bat. The offering that followed was the one he was looking for: a four-seam fastball over the inside heart of the plate.
The All-Star outfielder seemed to have found his rhythm as he ripped the 89-mph heater on a line in front of Cubs outfielder Ben Zobrist.
"I felt great," Harper said after the loss. "I had some pretty good at-bats, missed a couple pitches I could've drove, but that's baseball."
Baker explained before the game he inserted his star slugger in the two-spot in the order thinking it might help him see more fastballs with leadoff man and speedster Trea Turner wreaking havoc on the bases.
"Bryce isn't back 100 percent timing-wise," Baker said Friday afternoon. "So you want to not have him in those key RBI situations right now."
An RBI situation it wasn't, as Turner grounded out to begin the game, but Harper got the pitch he wanted nonetheless. It left his bat at over 100 mph.
"The longer we play, the closer Bryce is going to get," Baker said. "By next week or the end of this five-game series, we might do something different."
Harper missed a month and a half with a hyperextended knee he injured while running out a ground ball Aug. 12 versus the Giants. The 24-year-old returned for Washington's final five games of the regular season, but he was not quite himself offensively, going 3-for-18 (.167) with no extra-base hits and seven strikeouts.
For the 2015 NL Most Valuable Player and a guy who was batting .326/.419/.614 with 29 home runs and 87 RBIs in 106 games before the injury, reaching base on a single might not be perceived as much of an accomplishment. He likely would have added another single in the eighth, if not for second baseman Javier Baez racing back into right field to make an over-the-shoulder grab. And on a night when the entire Nationals' offense was shut down by Hendricks, Harper's base hit could be a sign of better production on the horizon as the club searches for a spark in Game 2.
"Bryce, he's an unbelievable talent," catcher Matt Wieters said. "Anytime you can get him back in the lineup healthy -- and I think he knows he's healthy -- it's just a matter of time before he goes off."
Oliver Macklin is a reporter for MLB.com based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter at @OMacklinMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.