Nick Wass/Associated Press

First, some good news for Washington Nationals fans: Bryce Harper has begun running on a NASA-inspired anti-gravity treadmill and throwing from the outfield, Nats general manager Mike Rizzo told 106.7 The Fan (via CBS DC).

Harper, in case you’ve forgotten, suffered a bone bruise when he slipped on a rain-slicked first base Aug. 12 and hasn’t played since.

“He’s moving around effortlessly,” Rizzo said. “No limp in his gait.”

Weightless running and long toss are nice, and it’s excellent to hear Harper isn’t limping. That’s a long way from game action, though, and the playoffs are approaching fast.

Here’s what Harper said of the healing process, per Mark Zuckerman of MASNSports.com: “It takes time, but we don’t have much.”

Back to the subject of good news, Washington clinched the National League East on Sunday. That’s cool, no denying it. Cue the champagne and attendant good vibes.

Without Harper, however, their ability to advance past the division series and challenge the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs for Senior Circuit supremacy is in mortal doubt.

Harper injured his knee Aug. 12 after slipping on a rain-slicked first base.

Harper injured his knee Aug. 12 after slipping on a rain-slicked first base.Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Say what you will about his brash antics and recent, ill-fated experiment with cornrows (seriously, Bryce, don’t). 

We’re talking about one of the game’s preeminent offensive players, a guy who has won a Rookie of the Year award, NL MVP trophy and made five All-Star teams before his 25th birthday.

Consider this: In 2016, Harper posted an .814 OPS with 24 home runs and 21 stolen bases. That’s a solid season by almost any standard, yet fans and pundits were wringing their hands, wondering what was wrong.

That’s because Harper posted an otherworldly 1.109 OPS with 42 home runs in 2015 en route to his MVP. 

This year, he was clearing that impossibly high bar with a 1.034 OPS and 29 homers when he got hurt.

The Nats offense isn’t moribund without him. As of Sunday, they paced the NL in runs scored, slugging percentage and OPS.

First baseman Ryan Zimmerman (.301/.358/.557, 31 HR), second baseman Daniel Murphy (.321/.381/.547, 22 HR) and third baseman Anthony Rendon (.302/.401/.536, 23 HR) all boast notable stat lines. 

The duo of Max Scherzer and a healthy Stephen Strasburg gives Washington one of the best 1-2 starting-pitching punches in either league.

Speedy sophomore Trea Turner has showed signs of life since returning from the disabled list, and he has collected eight hits in his last five games.

All of that, again, was enough for the Nationals to cruise to a second straight division title. Without Harper, though, the balance of power shifts away from the nation’s capital come October.

After a down year in 2016, Harper was back to MVP-level production.

After a down year in 2016, Harper was back to MVP-level production.Greg Fiume/Getty Images

“He’s definitely one of those guys that you can’t replace on a team,” right-hander Edwin Jackson said at the time of Harper’s injurious slip-and-fall, per ESPN.com.

The Nats have gone 19-10 in Harper’s absence, though 20 of those games have come against teams with losing records. The wheels aren’t falling off.

The Dodgers, however, are loaded for bear out west after adding righty Yu Darvish at the non-waiver trade deadline to an already ridiculously stacked roster. Yeah, they’ve dropped 10 straight, but that feels less like a harbinger of doom and more L.A. finally getting some losing out of its system.

The Cubs, likewise, have suffered bumps in the road and have yet to lock down the NL Central thanks to the pesky Milwaukee Brewers. Make no mistake, though: The defending champions will be a formidable opponent come playoff time.

To remain in that elite group, the Nationals need Harper. It would be best if he could return for a tuneup in the waning days of the regular season, though the more probable scenario is a comeback in the postseason. Hey, it worked last year for Chicago and Kyle Schwarber.

Either way, the Nats need Harper’s bat. They need his bravado. They need the pedigree and eyeball-commanding prestige he brings to the clubhouse, dugout and batter’s box.

With him, they’re a legitimate World Series player. Without him, they’re a hobbled also-ran destined for another early exit.

Harper’s space-age treadmill may be weightless, but his injury is as heavy as it gets.

         

All statistics current as of Sunday and courtesy of MLB.com and Baseball-Reference.



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