Now would be as good a time as any for the Washington Nationals.
Ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg have returned after a series a nagging injuries earlier in the year. The next 15 games, and 19 of the next 23, are against teams with a sub .500 record. All but seven of those 23 games are at home.
But most of all, after missing 31 games over five weeks with bursitis in his left knee, the Nationals have their most irreplaceable player, outfielder Bryce Harper back healthy. And if the Nationals are going to make any sort of run at the Atlanta Braves‘ seven game lead in the NL East, it will be because of Harper.
Of course, few teams have the likes of Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman at the top of their pitching rotations. The Nationals are blessed with three dynamic starting pitchers.
Offensively, however, the Nationals have one dynamic player.
It has been well documented how the Nationals perform with the 20-year-old Harper in the lineup versus without: the team is 26-20 in the games Harper plays versus 16-21 when he does not. Further, in his second year in the big leagues, Harper is unquestionably the best bat on the offensively-challenged Nationals.
Remember, Harper has 13 home runs in only 158 at-bats. By comparison, team shortstop Ian Desmond leads the team with 15 home runs, but has nearly double the at-bats (309).
But Harper’s contributions go well beyond statistics. A good reference illustrating this would be Milwaukee Brewers manager Ron Roenicke, who says of Harper, “he can hit any pitch, and you have to be really careful how you pitch him.”
Translation: Harper scares people.
Right now, that is not said of any other Nationals player. And while Roenicke didn’t exactly say that, he didn’t mention that he had to be “really careful,” with anyone else. Further, Harper’s return should create RBI opportunities and ease some of the pressure on the rest of a Nationals lineup that is pressing and short on confidence. Heck, we’ve already witnessed this.
On Tuesday evening, when Harper hit a home run versus the Brewers in his first at-bat since May, Nationals Park was energized like it hadn’t been since well, May. Whether he is stretching a single into a double, a double into a triple, or crashing into fences to make catches, no one creates momentum as quickly as Harper.
And for a team that spent much of June in the doldrums, Harper’s return was an instant shot in the arm.
The biggest factor in the Nationals closing the seven-game deficit on the Braves in the National League East is the return of Harper. And as we’ve already seen, I’m not sure the Nationals can do without him.