It appears, at least for now, that baseball doesn’t lose Bryce Harper for the season because of what happened at first base on a wet field at Nationals Park on Saturday. The Nationals say it is a bad bone bruise in Harper’s hyperextended left knee, but no ligament or tendon damage, and they do expect him to play again in 2017. That is not just a good thing. It is a great thing. It is not just the Nationals who need Bryce Harper. Anybody who loves baseball does.
Understand: It wasn’t Major League Baseball who really brought the sport back to Washington, D.C. It wasn’t ownership. Or Stephen Strasburg’s fastball. Harper brought baseball back to the nation’s capital. He has that kind of talent, and flair, and star power and, even in what has been a Dodgers season in the National League, has people believing, more than ever, that the Nationals might finally be ready to win it all. The whole thing is built around him.
And then it seemed to all go wrong on Saturday.
It happened fast. These things always happen fast in sports, where the next moment is always the one that can change everything. A game. A season. Sometimes even a career. Harper hits one hard down the first-base line against the Giants. The kid Ryder Jones of the Giants makes a great play, and decides in the moment that he can beat Harper to the bag. A wet first-base bag, on a wet field in Washington.
Jones is coming hard for first and Harper is coming hard down the line and the Giants pitcher, Jeff Samardzija, is still coming for the base himself, still not sure if Jones might flip him the ball to try to beat Harper, as big a baseball star as there is, to first base.
Harper can see Jones right ahead of him. Samardzija is coming from his left. At the last moment Harper tries to avoid Jones and a collision and his left knee hits the back side of first base instead. Then Harper is flying through the air, arms extended. As soon as he lands, he is reaching for his left knee, clearly in pain. As soon as you saw the replay, you saw the terrible angle of Harper’s left leg hitting the bag, and had a right to think that he had just done terrible and lasting damage to his left knee.
The Nationals’ athletic trainer, Dale Gilbert, gets to him. Harper’s head is down — he’s making no attempt to get up. He does try to extend his leg out behind him. It only seems to make the pain worse. Dusty Baker, the Nationals manager, a tough old baseball man who has seen everything — who knows his season might just have changed, too — comes walking out of the dugout, holding his hands to both sides of his head, walking toward where Harper and his trainer are behind first base at Nationals Park.
This isn’t just baseball’s bright young star on the ground there. It is Baker’s star, 24 years old, one who has been reminding us all this season just how much game he really has. Last year was a disappointment, for Harper, for the Nats. He ended up hitting .243, with 24 home runs and 86 RBIs in 147 games and wasn’t the best hitter on his own team, because Daniel Murphy was. But now he had come back big. Harper had gotten back up, with 29 home runs this season already, and one more RBI than he had last season, and a .326 batting average and .419 on-base percentage and an OPS of 1.034. Now they wanted him to get back up at Nationals Park.
When Harper finally did get to his feet, he needed his teammates to help carry him off. Everybody watching the game hoped that it was just the day that had changed in Washington; hoped that an MRI wouldn’t show that Harper’s knee had exploded, even if it looked as if that is exactly what had just happened.
“Significant bone bruise,” the Nationals’ fine general manager, Mike Rizzo, said on Sunday, “when [Harper] hyperextended the knee. We know we’ve dodged a bullet here.”
What could have been the worst possible news, for Rizzo and his best player and his baseball team, wasn’t. It is clear that Harper is going to miss a significant amount of time. But Rizzo and the Nationals believe he will play again this season, one in which Washington is ahead in the National League East by 14 1/2 games.
Here is what Dusty said when the game was over on Saturday, and all they knew for sure at the time was that Harper had hyperextended the knee, with Sunday’s MRI pending:
“He was in obvious pain, and he was praying and I was praying, too. That what we usually do when things are in a bad way. The good thing is he’s young and strong. I’m very optimistic that he’ll be at least fine shortly.”
Harper will be fine, even if no one is quite sure when. That is sports, too. What you hope for, as a baseball fan, as a sports fan, is that Harper comes back to the Nationals the way Kevin Durant came back to the Golden State Warriors after he hurt his knee.
It happened to Durant against the Wizards on Feb. 28. The injury was diagnosed as an MCL sprain and a bone bruise. The Warriors, as it turned out, played great without him. Durant came back in April. He wasn’t just healthy for the playoffs, when the Warriors played 17 games and won 16, he played the best basketball of his life in the finals against LeBron James and the Cavaliers, en route to winning the NBA Finals MVP Award.
The night Durant went to the ground against the Wizards, he wasn’t in the kind of pain that Harper was in behind first base on Saturday. But Durant did strain a ligament in his knee. At the time, nobody was sure when he would come back, or even if he would be completely healthy for the rest of the 2016-17 Warriors season.
Durant got well. The Warriors got even better in the playoffs. Durant finally won the title that Harper and the Nationals think they can win this season.
When the money was on the table in the Finals Durant came all the way back from a knee injury and, in the end, was the most important player on the court even when LeBron and Stephen Curry were on the same court with him.
Bryce Harper is that kind of star in baseball. He doesn’t just play like a leading man. He looks like one. It is one of the reasons why he is as much the face of his sport as anyone.
That face was contorted in pain on Saturday afternoon, hands in the dirt, while baseball waited for Bryce Harper to please get up. He did. He does that.