Harper had missed 42 games after slipping on the first-base bag in a game on Aug. 12 and ending up on the ground, writhing in pain. He was putting up Most Valuable Player Award numbers for the second time in three seasons when he went down, and the diagnosis was a bone bruise in his left knee along with a strained calf and a good deal of uncertainty as to when he would return and what shape he would be in when he did.
In that sense, Harper’s injury fit right into the postseason story line of the Nationals, which has become embedded in frustration.
A first-place finish in the National League East in 2012 and a loss in the first round to the St. Louis Cardinals. A first-place finish in 2014 and a loss in the first round to the San Francisco Giants. And then more of the same in 2016 — first place in the N.L. East, and then a first-round ouster, this time by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Harper played in all three of those postseason series, and did well in only one of them (2014). But the idea that he might not be ready to play this time, when the Nationals are likely to face the defending champion Chicago Cubs in the first round, created a lot of unease among Nationals fans.
In the wake of Tuesday’s return, Harper had five games left in the regular season to shake off the rust in what is essentially an improvised rehabilitation assignment on the major league level. Players normally do that kind of assignment in the minors, but because the minor league season ended in early September, the Nationals had no other way of easing Harper back into action.
So he hit in the batting cages for weeks, then graduated to hitting on the field, running the bases and shagging fly balls. Last week, the Nationals set up the simulated games for Harper with pitchers right off the plane.
That, the Nationals decided, was a better option than sending Harper to Florida to face raw prospects in the instructional league.
“That’s the biggest thing for me: just trying to see where my timing is at and see how it feels,” Harper said after his second simulated game, on Saturday in Queens, where the Nationals were facing the Mets. “It takes time to get back in the swing of things.”
Harper looked comfortable taking batting practice before Sunday’s game against the Mets, smashing balls far over the right-field fence. Because of his talent (five All-Star selections and an M.V.P. Award, in 2015) and the fact that he is 24, he may be able to compensate for the short amount of time he will have before the postseason begins.
“For a young player, he knows himself and his body pretty well,” Baker said. “This will certainly be a test. But it would really send an influx of confidence on this team to have him back.”
The Nationals played well above .500 without Harper, which speaks to how talented a team it is over all. But in a sense, the Nationals have been coasting for much of the season in a weak division — they wrapped up the division title more than two weeks ago — and the postseason will be played at a higher intensity.
And only when those games are played — the Nationals will open the first round at home on Oct. 6 — will Baker and Harper’s teammates be able to see whether he is ready to make a difference.
“Is 80 percent Bryce better than 100 percent somebody else?’’ Baker said. “We have a lot of questions to answer.”
Before allowing Harper to return, the Nationals wanted to be sure he could do everything on the baseball field in normal fashion and not have to favor his knee. Harper said over the weekend that he felt good and that he would not worry about possibly injuring his knee again.
“If something is going to blow, it’s going to blow,” Harper said. “I’ve always said that. I’m just going to play as hard as I can, like I do, and go from there.”
But go how far? The Nationals’ starting rotation — led by Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez — is among baseball’s best, and Strasburg should be a major postseason factor after missing two of the three previous first-round series. The once leaky bullpen was patched with midseason trades for relievers Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle.
Third baseman Anthony Rendon and second baseman Daniel Murphy may reach 100 R.B.I. in the next week. Resurgent Ryan Zimmerman, a first baseman, has been a revelation.
As for Harper, he was hitting .326 with 29 home runs and 87 R.B.I. when he got hurt. His 1.034 on-base-plus-slugging percentage would have paced the National League had he not been out for so long.
Scherzer said he thought the hardest challenge for Harper would be to get his timing back at the plate. Meanwhile, the hardest obstacle for the Nationals will be to get over their first-round demons.
It’s a lot to confront, but the Nationals do have a certain Cheyenne elder on their side.
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