After clinching its fourth division title in six seasons, the Washington Nationals are a happy but fractured ball club. The fractures are being healed day by day with the re-incorporation of each of the injured players into the lineup before the playoffs. With three heartbreaking first round losses to stew over, Nationals fans are done with excuses even though they will not enter the playoffs as favorites.
With the minor league season completed, Bryce Harper is unable to play rehab games with a particular ball club so he — along with Stephen Drew and Brian Goodwin — have participated in simulated games in New York as the team faced the Mets. From what we have heard from sources, he has looked as solid as he could trying to get into an offensive rhythm. Defensively, the base paths will be an issue since his injury was to his leg. He will never be 100 percent this season.
One month of rust will not just vanish because Harper has resumed batting practice, but he needs reps, and lots of them. His presence in the lineup is missed considering he’s the emotional heartbeat of the team. If Harper can return to the lineup with anywhere near the MVP-level presence that fans have expected from him, maybe some of the questions will take care of themselves.
Along with Harper’s eventual return, another question lingers: Where does Harper bat in the lineup against the Cubs? One thing we learned in the last two seasons is that Cubs manager Joe Maddon just does not respect Ryan Zimmerman. Remember last season when the teams played that early season series in Chicago? Harper was killing the league and Maddon basically said “Harper will not beat us” and walked him 13 times in four games. Zimmerman could not deliver in a four-game sweep. Don’t think that this strategy isn’t in play for the Cubs if Harper is placed in his usual third spot in the lineup before Zimmerman.
Nationals team manager Dusty Baker is a smart man. I’m pretty sure he remembers what happened. No matter how great Zimmerman has been this season, sometimes things are mental. Could Zimmerman still be affected by this strategy if implemented? To alleviate any issues, just don’t place Zimmerman behind Harper. If I was the manager of the ball club, I would let Bryce bat second in any games that Jayson Werth doesn’t start and third in games he does with Anthony Rendon or Daniel Murphy in the fourth spot.
If Werth doesn’t look like he will be himself for the rest of the season, do you sit him and play midseason pickup extraordinaire Howie Kendrick? Werth has looked old, slow and clueless in his moments there so Kendrick would be the first man up to replace him in the lineup. Kendrick, who had a great August and has cooled a tad in September, is still the best person for the gig and, as a veteran, will not be blinded and nervous of the October spotlight.
Daniel Murphy has stayed virtually healthy all season but has had a recurrence of a stiff neck injury that has hindered him lately from being his normal self. With just less than two weeks remaining, does Dusty Baker sit him or does he hope that Murphy’s professionalism at the plate can still bring results even if he is not fully 100 percent?
Special talents have that innate ability to carry franchises, and Harper is that man. The Nationals may need that sort of effort this postseason to have any hopes of advancing to heights this franchise has never seen before.