Washington Nationals: Bryce Harper returns tonight in Philadelphia

(Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
(Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images) /

The moment Washington Nationals fans have been waiting for happen is tonight as Bryce Harper is back in the outfield

After missing the last 40 games due to a bone bruise in his knee and a calf strain, the Washington Nationals are expected to get Bryce Harper back in the lineup tonight as they begin a three game series against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post reported this yesterday and talked about how the recovery went as smooth as possible

"“Harper and the Nationals never committed to a timetable, but targeted the last week of the season for some time, hoping the 24-year-old would be able to return in time to get major league at-bats before the playoffs. Everything has gone according to plan, including the two simulated games the Nationals built for him this week.”"

Update: Harper is not in the lineup tonight, but its not something to panic about. According to Mike Rizzo (courtesy of MASN’s Byron Kerr), he’s just not feeling well:

With just one week to go, the Washington Nationals have plenty of time to get Harper ready for the NLDS a week from Friday. They are familiar with the process of trying to get injured players at-bats last year when Daniel Murphy had a good NLDS after just one at-bat from September 21-October 1.

Harper didn’t get at-bats in West Palm Beach, but the 2015 NL MVP did get a chance to participate in simulated games in Atlanta and New York against minor league pitchers on this road trip. Plus, he was hitting some mammoth shots in batting practice and fielding balls from right field.

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For the next week, Harper will get a chance to tune up for the postseason without seeing much  elite pitching. Tonight, he starts at Citizens Bank Park, a ballpark where he crushes balls in regularly. In his last 17 games played in that ballpark, he has nine home runs, 17 RBI’s, and has 21 hits in 65 at-bats.

Out of the final seven games the Washington Nationals will play in the regular season, he will likely face two tough starters in Aaron Nola (tonight) and Gerrit Cole (Saturday). While its not the challenge of the postseason, those two pitchers are in the top three in the National League in strikeouts in the second half.

Over the last three seasons, Harper is 8-for-17 against Nola with a pair of home runs, but he’s just 1-for-6 against him this season. The key will be how quickly he responds to the curveball, which is Nola’s signature pitch. As for Cole, Harper has a hit in each of the last three years against the Pirates right-hander, but went 0-for-3 against him back in May.

Now that Harper is back, the offense is at much at full strength as it is going to be. The Nats can slide Ryan Zimmerman and Daniel Murphy back into their regular spots in the lineup and that will also take time as well for the offense to gel again.

While the Nats have been a good team without Harper in the lineup, the return of their right fielder makes them a great team and gives them a better chance to advance past the first round for the first time in their short history.

So, as you watch Harper this week, don’t read too much into the numbers. Instead, take a look and see how his timing is. That alone will be a good indicator as to how ready he is when the Nats face the NL Central winner (likely the Chicago Cubs) October 6 at Nats Park.

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Over a month ago, there was fear of the worst news possible when Harper left the game on a rainy night against the Giants. Now, he’s back and the positive thoughts can start rolling back in. He may not win MVP in the regular season, but you know he’s determined to make a national statement in October.