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Nats' Bryce Harper reinstated from DL with six games left

PHILADELPHIA -- Bryce Harper started Tuesday night's game for the Washington Nationals, going 0-for-2 with a walk in his return from the disabled list before leaving for a defensive replacement in the bottom of the fifth inning.

Harper, 24, returned to the roster after missing 41 games with a significant bone bruise in his left knee. He suffered the injury when he slipped on the first-base bag while trying to beat out a ground ball against the San Francisco Giants on Aug. 12.

"I feel fine," Harper said after the Nationals' 4-1 loss at Citizens Bank Park. "Just try and get past tonight and see what I feel like tomorrow. If I feel good, then I'll play. If I don't, take a day and see what I feel like the next day."

With the loss, Washington locked itself into the second seed in the NL playoffs behind the Dodgers. The Nationals will host the NL Central champion -- either the Cubs or Milwaukee -- in a division series beginning Oct. 6 at Nationals Park.

The Nationals had planned to play Harper in the series opener Monday night, but his return was delayed by the flu.

Harper ranks third in the National League with a .614 slugging percentage, and the Washington offense has dropped off in his absence. The Nationals are averaging 4.2 runs per game and slugging .386 as a team since Harper's injury, compared with 5.4 runs per game and a .472 slugging percentage before he hurt his knee.

Washington clinched the NL East title more than two weeks ago, so manager Dusty Baker has the luxury of easing Harper in gradually before the playoffs. He has given indications that Harper will not play all nine innings at the outset as he eases back into the lineup.

"I'll do it kind of like spring training,'' Baker said. "It's a feel thing. I have to see how he feels and how he comes out tomorrow, because game speed is totally different than practice speed.''

When asked if he's completely healthy, Harper said he made it a point not to rush back before he was ready.

"I'm pain-free,'' Harper said. "I wouldn't be out there playing now or playing in the postseason if I wasn't. If I weren't pain-free, I would see you guys next year.''