Healthy Bryce Harper Shows How He Can Boost Nationals Lineup to New Level

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Healthy Bryce Harper Shows How He Can Boost Nationals Lineup to New Level
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Many moons from now, we're probably not going to be singing songs of Bryce Harper's return from the disabled list on June 30, 2014.

In this moment, however, Harper's return is at least worth talking about. While not quite the stuff of legend, his first game back with the Washington Nationals did succeed in reminding everyone that, yeah, their lineup is a whole lot better when he's in it.

After missing two months with a thumb sprain suffered on a slide into third base on April 25, Harper returned to Washington's lineup Monday night batting sixth and playing left field against the Colorado Rockies at Nationals Park. He went 1-for-3 with a walk, a run and an RBI in a 7-3 Nationals victory.

Again, not quite the stuff of legend, but what good stuff there is lies in the details.

Let's start with the one hit Harper got. That was an RBI single in the fourth inning that gave the Nationals a 1-0 lead. It looked a little like this:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Apart from Harper's renowned mane making its first appearance in a while, the key attraction of this play is obviously the RBI itself—specifically, how Harper got it by producing with a runner in scoring position.

Such production has been hard to come by for the Nationals in 2014, as they began the week ranked 25th in MLB with a .669 OPS with runners in scoring position. Harper has already helped raise that number and should continue to do so.

How do we know that? Well, partially because the .824 career OPS Harper has in RISP situations is pretty good and partially because of how that OPS isn't far off from his .829 career OPS in all situations. No matter which way you slice it, the dude can hit.

Evan Vucci/Associated Press

But another thing that stands out about that play is Harper aggressively going for second base after Drew Stubbs bobbled the ball. That's a vintage Harper hustle play, and it was a welcome sight indeed.

Not so much because of how it relates to the message Nats manager Matt Williams was trying to send when he benched Harper for a lack of hustle back in April, mind you. More important was how he showed he's not afraid to hustle on the basepaths after getting hurt doing precisely that back in April.

And Harper hustling on the basepaths is yet another way he can help the Nationals score runs. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Nationals already rank 12th in baserunning runs. If he can stay in the lineup, Harper will take that already solid dynamic of their offense and make it even better.

So that's what Harper did in the fourth inning. The next big impact he made on Monday's game happened in the sixth inning, and he did it by...well, simply by being Bryce Harper.

There was one out and runners on second and third when Harper came to the plate to face Rockies right-hander Rob Scahill. But rather than have Scahill face Harper, Rockies skipper Walt Weiss called for four wide ones to load the bases for Ian Desmond.

Since he entered the game with just a .697 OPS, Desmond is not having such a great year. But with the third-highest slugging percentage among Nats regulars, he's still dangerous. Had Harper not been there, here's guessing the Rockies probably wouldn't have walked a man to load the bases for him.

As James Wagner of The Washington Post put it:

Pretty much. And not surprisingly, the move backfired when Desmond scorched a double down the left field line that scored everyone to give the Nationals a 5-2 lead.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

To be sure, Harper's return on Monday night wasn't a complete success. It would have been better if he'd shown off some of his trademark power, and there was one not-so-awesome moment where he grounded into a 6-3 double play in the second inning.

However, Harper showed with four home runs in five rehab gamesincluding three in one game—that his thumb injury didn't rob him of his power completely. It will show up eventually. And even despite the double play, there's no denying he helped Washington's offense more than he hurt it.

Assuming Harper stays healthy, that's going to be a recurring theme down the stretch. That alone is reason enough to believe Washington's offense is going to be better than it's been, which is only good enough to be in the middle of the pack in the National League in runs scored (eighth) and OPS (ninth).

Then you can throw in how Monday night was the first time since Opening Day that Williams was able to start all eight starters he had healthy at the beginning of the season. After injuries quickly scattered them all, Harper's return was the final missing puzzle piece being put in place.

And now that he's there, Harper seems to be feeling pretty confident. Via Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post:

The best team in baseball?

Eh, that's probably a stretch. Those Oakland A's are pretty good, and so are those Milwaukee Brewers.

But we know the Nationals already had an elite bullpen. We also know that with Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister in the mix, they already had an elite starting rotation. And now that Harper is back with everyone else, they should have a much-improved offense.

Maybe they won't be the best team from here on out. But given what they're packing now, they should at least be a heck of a lot better.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

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