Bryce Boost: Nats thrilled Harper set to provide playoff pop

Associated Press

When Bryce Harper slipped on a rain-slicked first base and tumbled awkwardly to the ground in apparent agony back in August, many members of the Washington Nationals feared the worst.

"Watching that live ..." pitcher Gio Gonzalez said, shaking his head as his voice trailed off at the thought of it. "Seemed serious. Devastating."

"We feared," general manager Mike Rizzo recalled Wednesday during a workout at Nationals Park ahead of the NL Division Series, "that he might be lost for the season."

First baseman Ryan Zimmerman's take at the time: "Losing him would have been huge."

Shortstop Trea Turner's memory: "You kind of feel sick to your stomach a little bit."

And now that five-time All-Star Harper is back with the Nationals after recovering from what turned out to be a hyperextended left knee, and set to start in right field on Friday night in Game 1 of the NLDS against the defending champion Chicago Cubs?

"For us to see him moving around, swinging the bat, it just goes to show you the character of the guy — how he is, how he wants to be on the field. Now that he saw some live pitching, we'll get the Bryce that we all know," Gonzalez said. "It sets the tone for our lineup. It gives everyone protection, from the top to the bottom. It's a very difficult lineup when you have to deal with Bryce in there. You have to respect him, no matter what. Wherever he is in that lineup, he's a threat."

Might be in the No. 2 spot, where manager Dusty Baker used the 2015 NL MVP after he returned in time to appear in five games in the final week of the regular season.

Harper went 3 for 18 with zero extra-base hits — and one Bryce-at-his-most-aggressive, helmet-flying, hair-flowing dash home from first base.

Not a lot, but enough to put folks at ease around these parts.

"He feels good. He feels healthy," Rizzo said. "It was good to see him run the bases aggressively and 100 percent. When the game is at its highest and the lights are at their brightest, he'll be at his best."

Harper agrees with that assessment.

"I'm super-excited to play in those games," he said, "and be in those situations and that environment."

Of NL East champion Washington's three previous playoff appearances over the past five seasons, Harper's best showing came in 2014, when he went 5 for 17 with three homers and a double against the San Francisco Giants.

One player on the Cubs who can relate to Harper's attempt to get ready to hit without much in the way of preparation is Kyle Schwarber. He tore knee ligaments in April 2016, was expected to be done for the year, but returned in the World Series and went 7 for 17.

"The playoffs are here. It's going to be an adrenaline-packed kind of thing. That guy, he's played a lot of baseball in his life. He's played a lot of major league baseball," Schwarber said about Harper. "I'm sure once everything starts kicking in, everything's going to be fine for that guy. He's a heck of a ballplayer. Once he gets running out there and everything like that, I'm sure it'll all come back. It's a weird feeling to explain."

While Harper was missing 42 games while recovering from his knee injury this season, Washington's offense took a significant step back: The team averaged 4.1 runs without him during that stretch — compared to 5.1 over the full season.

"It definitely changes their lineup with him back in there," said Chicago's Game 1 starter, Kyle Hendricks. "Obviously, it's a big hole when he's not in there."

As for where he might bat against the Cubs, Harper shrugged.

"Dusty's going to do what he needs to do to have the best lineup he can. So I'm not really worried about that," he said. "Just trying to go out there and be Bryce and just do the things I can to help this team win. If I can do that, we'll be OK."

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AP Sports Writer Andrew Seligman in Chicago contributed to this report.

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Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

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