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Why the NL pennant might hinge on Bryce Harper's knee

How quickly Bryce Harper gets into a groove could determine whether the Nationals can make a long postseason run. Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

WASHINGTON -- Bryce Harper has always been a fast starter. The question is: Can he start fast enough to help the Washington Nationals avoid another slow finish?

When Harper suffered what looked to be a catastrophic knee injury on Aug. 12, the prevailing logic was that if the face of the franchise weren't able to return this season, the Nats would be in trouble come October. They'd be headed for yet another first-round playoff exit, their fourth in as many tries since moving to D.C. in 2005. However, if Harper were able to make it back in time for the postseason, well, that was another story. After all, his injury affected Washington like no other this season.

Through all the dings and dents the Nationals’ lineup has sustained -- including Adam Eaton's season-ending knee injury, Trea Turner's broken wrist, Jayson Werth's broken foot, Michael Taylor's strained oblique -- the offense has kept right on chugging, a testament to just how stacked the Nats' attack is.

But after Harper went down -- missing 42 games with a hyperextended left knee -- Washington's offensive output plummeted by 25 percent (from 5.4 runs per game to 4.1), a testament to just how valuable the former MVP really is. What's crazy is, despite the drastic drop-off in offense, the Nats still went 26-16 without Harper, a testament to just how good their pitching has been.

But winning series after series against the NL Least & Friends is different from winning series after series against, say, the Chicago Cubs, Arizangeles Dodgerbacks, and whichever AL contestant emerges from the Cleveland Indians Autumn Invitational. All of which is to say: Harper had better find his groove in a hurry.

"At 70 percent, he's better than most people. But you'd like to see at least 90 percent, because then we're seeing the guy that's a game-changer."

NL scout on Bryce Harper

If history is any indication, he might not have to look real hard.

Ever since bursting onto the scene in 2012, the former first overall pick has elevated the quick start into an art form. In five Opening Days, Harper is hitting .389 with five home runs. His career OPS in April is 1.072, more than 100 points higher than his next best month and almost 200 points higher than his lifetime mark. Both of his Player of the Month awards have come early in the season (May 2015, April 2016).

He's such a brisk beginner he even rakes in spring training (.333 lifetime average), a time of year when most veterans are still dusting off the cobwebs. So if anyone can return from a grotesque-looking injury that resulted in a six-week absence and hit the ground running, it's Harper. Which raises the following question: Can anyone do it?

It's one thing to bust out the whooping stick when you're February fresh like Harper did this year, when he followed up an intense offseason training program by launching eight homers in Grapefruit League action, tied for most in the majors. It's quite another to do it in October after a long layoff and without the benefit of a proper rehab stint -- against playoff pitching, no less. For what it's worth, even Harper himself has doubts.

"It takes me a while to get my timing going," he said 12 days ago after taking batting practice on the field for the first time since being sidelined. "I hit a lot in the offseason to get ready for spring training so that I'm ready to go. It's definitely going to be a tough thing. If we play Chicago, I might be facing Jon Lester for my first at-bat in six weeks. That's a tough task. It's going to take some time. Hopefully I can get back and get going a little sooner than later."

As it turns out, Harper and the Nationals will be facing Chicago in the National League Division Series. Whether or not it will be Lester on the mound in Game 1 remains to be seen, but this much we do know: It won't be Harper’s first at-bat in forever.

On Tuesday, after graduating from BP to a pair of simulated games against minor league hurlers, the 24-year-old slugger returned to the big league lineup against the Phillies, going 0-for-2 with a walk, a strikeout and a popout. Perhaps more important, he raced into the right-field corner in the bottom of the first inning to chase down an Aaron Altherr double, slammed on the brakes, then spun and threw to second -- all without his precious patella going poof.

Harper -- who was pulled in the fifth inning so as not to be taxed too heavily -- came out of his Tuesday test feeling spry enough that he was right back in there Wednesday, whereupon he collected his first hit (a fifth-inning bloop single to the opposite field), then proceeded to swipe second as part of a double steal behind Turner.

That's not to say Harper is 100 percent healed, or that Aug. 12 never happened.

"I'm a little sore today, playing two in a row," Harper said Thursday, when he was not in the lineup for Washington's series opener against the Pirates.

Manager Dusty Baker downplayed his star right fielder's absence and said hopefully Harper would be in the lineup for the Nats’ final three contests of the season. If that happens, and if Harper can somehow regain the form that made him an MVP front-runner a couple of months ago, then Washington -- with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg at the front of a stacked rotation, and Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle at the back of a bolstered bullpen -- will be a tough October out.

Even if Harper can only approach his former form, it still might be enough.

"At 70 percent, he's better than most people," one NL scout said. "But you'd like to see at least 90 percent, because then we're seeing the guy that's a game-changer."

If not, well, it won't be that much different from Washington's three previous postseason cameos.

For all of Harper's regular-season success, the playoffs have been a different story. The five-time All-Star is just a lifetime .211 hitter in the postseason. But it's important to remember that in 2012, when he went 3-for-23 with no walks and eight whiffs, he was just a snot-nosed 19-year-old rookie with five months of big league service time. In 2016, when he hit .235 (4-for-17) in Washington's first-round loss to the lower-seeded Dodgers, his lackluster performance came at the end of a historically disappointing season in which he appeared to have played through injury.

In between, there was the 2014 postseason, when a healthy and seasoned Harper mashed, hitting .294 with three homers and a double and turning in what -- to this point -- is the most accurate postseason approximation of his regular-season self. Not for nothing, the Nats still got bounced (the Giants won the NLDS 3-1), a reminder that when it comes to Washington's postseason fate, Harper's health isn't the only thing that matters.

For all the ink spilled over Harper's injury -- not to mention all the hand-wringing over how the bullpen's failures have fueled Washington's early exits and how the Nats' bats have a tendency to go silent in the playoffs -- one simple fact tends to get overlooked: The Nationals have never had Scherzer and Strasburg pitch in the same postseason. This year, they will. That matters, especially considering Strasburg has been the NL's best pitcher over the past six weeks.

It matters that Turner is back from his broken wrist and has finally rediscovered his stroke. It matters (in a different way) that Werth is back from his broken foot but still seems to be searching for his. It matters that the beefed-up bullpen has been nails. All of that matters. But given how dramatically the Nats' offense has slumped over the past six weeks, and given the club's propensity for slow finishes, it all seems oddly irrelevant compared to Harper's ability to start -- or in this case, restart -- fast.

"The biggest thing is just trying to be in there and be healthy," Harper said. "I feel good right now. If I can just keep going and do the things I need to do to get ready for the postseason, we'll get there. Just trying to go out there and be Bryce and just do the things I can to help this team win. If I can do that, then we'll be OK."