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The Nationals’ World Series Hopes Hinge on Bryce Harper’s Knee

Harper, who was carried off after hyperextending his knee in the first inning, is out indefinitely

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Rain delayed the start of Saturday’s Nationals-Giants game by three hours. That same rain had already forced Friday night’s game to be rescheduled as the top half of a Sunday doubleheader, and the Giants don’t come back to Washington again this season. Scheduling restraints being what they are, the show had to go on.

In the bottom of the first inning, Bryce Harper grounded out down the first-base line. As he stretched to try to beat out an infield hit, Harper’s left foot slipped over the top of the bag and augered into the ground. The impact bent Harper’s knee backward and sent him flying head over heels through the air, his helmet skidding off down the line like a riderless horse in a Civil War movie. By the time Harper came to a stop, he was already cradling his injured knee.

After the game, Nationals manager Dusty Baker announced that Harper had hyperextended his knee. The severity of the injury will remain unknown until Harper goes in for an MRI on Sunday.

[Update: The MRI revealed a significant bone bruise, but no ligament damage. The Nationals say they're optimistic that Harper will return this season, but for now, he's out indefinitely.]

If it’s season-ending, Harper’s injury would have exactly the impact you would expect. The Nationals already lost one starting outfielder, Adam Eaton, to a torn ACL while he tried to beat a throw to first back in April. Jayson Werth and Michael Taylor are both due back from the DL in the next few weeks, but at the moment, the Nationals look like they’re out their top four outfielders. If Harper is out for any significant length of time, his loss will sting most of all.

Harper is the best offensive player in the National League, or close to it. Heading into Saturday’s games he was fourth in the NL in batting average and OBP, second in SLG, third in wRC+, and tied for eighth in walk rate. Werth—when he returns from his broken toe—and the recently acquired Howie Kendrick are both good on-base guys who can play right field, but both are years past their prime. And let’s not kid ourselves—there’s simply no replacing a bat like Harper’s.

What happens in that MRI tube could determine the course of Washington’s season. The Nationals, 14.5 games up on Miami in the NL East, are a lock to make the postseason, but how long they stay in the postseason depends in large part on their best hitter’s health. If Harper just has to ice his knee for a few days, Washington remains the biggest threat to the Dodgers in the National League playoffs. Torn ligaments, on the other hand, could knock Harper out for not only the rest of this season, but also throw Opening Day 2018—Harper’s last before he hits free agency—into question as well.

This piece was updated after publication to include the results of Sunday’s MRI.