WOODBRIDGE, Va. — Bryce Harper made his first rehab assignment with the Single-A Potomac Nationals on Tuesday as he continues his return from left knee bursitis. Harper played three innings and had two at-bats, going 1-for-1 with a double, a walk, and a run against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans.
In Harper’s first at-bat against pitcher Alec Asher, he took a ball before hitting a pop fly to shallow left field. Normally a routine out, shortstop Edwin Garcia dropped it out of his glove on the play. Harper reached second and looked smooth on the base path, it was ruled a double.
While at second, Harper took a significant lead with right fielder Michael Taylor up at the plate. After throwing several pitches, Asher threw behind Harper and got him on the pickoff attempt. Harper slid head first into the bag, but looked fine trotting back to the dugout after getting up.
Baserunning is a key focus for the Nats at this point in Harper's recovery and he passed his first test with no issue.
"Running the bases, he looked good," Potomac manager Brian Daubach said. "The double he hit, the bloop down the left field line, he was flying. It was as good as I’ve seen him run."
Daubach was Harper's manager with the Hagerstown Suns in 2011.
"He looks like the same old Harp," he said.
Harper came up for his second at-bat in the bottom of the third with a man on first and one out. Asher began with a 3-1 count before getting Harper to swing and miss on a pitch high and outside. Harper fouled off the next pitch before taking a walk.
Two batters later, Potomac shortstop Jason Martinson hit a single to right field that saw Harper go from first base all the way to third. While running into third his helmet flew off behind him, putting a stamp on how normal he looked running the bases. Harper would score moments later on a double by catcher Adrian Nieto.
Daubach noted how Harper's patience at the plate was unusual for a player seeing live action for the first time in a month.
"It was good to see this early. I know he’s been out a while," Daubach said. "Most rehab guys, the more at-bats they get it back. But to have his second at-bat be a long at-bat and to lay off some pitches was a good sign."
Tuesday was Harper’s first appearance with Potomac after skipping them on his way to the majors. He played Single-A ball at Hagerstown before going straight to Double-A to play with the Harrisburg Senators. From there he began the 2012 season with the Syracuse Chiefs.
Because this was Harper’s first appearance at Pfitzner Stadium, and given his star power, it was a soldout crowd in Woodbridge, Va. Two hours before the game there were long lines with people ready to get a rare glimpse at the young superstar.
Harper took batting practice at 6:30 p.m. before the game in a cage behind the bleachers in right field. It produced quite the scene with police officers clearing space as he walked in and out.
Around 50 people stood and watched as he took practice swings including dozens of local kids. Young baseball players - many wearing his Nationals jersey - commented on his swing and routine, admiring how methodical he was before each pitch. Teenage girls screamed as he walked past.
Daubach was watching Harper's batting practice session and said he's never seen anything like it.
"Any time you got a rehab guy, but especially Harp, you get a lot of buzz in the crowd," he said. "On a Tuesday night it can get slow around here, but it wasn’t a normal Tuesday night. That’s for sure."
Harper has been out with the knee injury since May 26 after aggravating in a game against the Philadelphia Phillies. He wore a knee brace in the game that was visible up close, making his left knee look larger than his right.
Harper is expected to play at least two more games with Potomac before eying a potential weekend return when the Nationals travel to New York to play the Mets.
Nats manager Davey Johnson was asked before the team’s game on Tuesday whether facing the Mets was possible for Harper and said it is unlikely. The Nats play New York Friday through Sunday and then host the Brewers on Monday.
“I doubt if he'll be able to make it that quick,” Johnson said. “He only has one gear: 150 percent. Even if it's just three innings, he ain't going to be babying it. He doesn't know how to do that. I'm hopeful the knee doesn't react to him playing, and hopefully he'll be back vs. Milwaukee.”
Harper looked his usual self from a distance on Tuesday. He was not, however, permitted to speak to the media about the game.