Dec 31, 2013, 6:00 AM EDT
As we count down the final days of 2013, we are counting down the 10 most significant moments of the year for the Nationals. These aren’t necessarily positive (or negative) moments, and some didn’t even take place on the field. All, though, were significant in the big picture and defined the Nationals’ year. We conclude today with significant moment No. 1: Bryce Harper’s May 13 collision with the wall at Dodger Stadium…
Why did the Nationals underachieve in 2013? There are a dozen answers, all of them legit, each offering a piece of the puzzle that resulted in an 86-win season and an October spent watching other clubs on national TV.
But if told you could only pick one reason for the Nats’ performance this year, Bryce Harper’s banged-up body certainly seems a valid choice.
Harper absolutely tore up the National League in April, ending the month with a .344 batting average, nine homers, a .430 on-base percentage and 1.150 OPS. Maintain a pace even remotely resembling those numbers, and Harper would have run away with his first NL MVP award.
He didn’t maintain that pace, of course, and though simple regression may explain it to some extent, the fact Harper was significantly less than 100 percent healthy from May through September likely explains more.
First came an April 30 collision with the chain-link fence at Turner Field in Atlanta, one that left Harper’s left ribcage bruised. Two weeks later came an even scarier sight: Harper crumpled in a heap on the warning track at Dodger Stadium, blood oozing out of his chin and down his neck following a full-speed head-on with another chain-link fence.
The Nationals’ initial fear was that Harper had suffered a head injury, given the ferocious force in which his neck snapped back after he face-planted the wall. Turns out the most significant injury he sustained on the play was to his left knee.
Harper tried to play through the pain for another two weeks, but it became clear he couldn’t do it. He was placed on the disabled list May 27 with bursitis, an injury confirmed by noted orthopedist James Andrews, who said the 20-year-old outfielder could return to the field after rest and rehab, no surgery.
After a five-week stint on the DL, Harper was back in the Nationals lineup July 1. And aside from a couple of forced days off — plus a four-day break in September due to a hip injury — he remained in the lineup through season’s end.
But Harper never was the same. In 83 games played after the May 13 collision in L.A., Harper hit .262 with 10 homers, a .356 OBP and a .789 OPS. Not terrible numbers by any stretch, but nowhere close to the MVP numbers he put up prior to the injury.
He acknowledged late in September that he hadn’t been 100 percent since his initial encounter with the wall in Atlanta. And shortly after the season ended, he had arthroscopic surgery to repair the knee, a final admission of the severity of the bursitis.
Why was Harper’s injury more significant than anything else that happened to the Nationals in 2013? Consider his importance to the club, even at such a young age. In the 118 games he played this year, the Nats went 65-53. That’s a .551 winning percentage that over a full season would equate to 89 wins. One shy of a playoff berth in 2013.
In the 44 games Harper missed this year, the Nationals went 21-23, a .477 winning percentage that extrapolated out equals 77 wins over a full season.
Plain and simple, had Harper merely stayed in the lineup the full year, the Nats would’ve legitimately been in a pennant race. And if he not only stayed in the lineup but also stayed relatively close to 100 percent healthy, they might well have made it to October.
The Harper collision was significant in other ways, too. After hearing so many pundits question the reckless abandon with which he has always played, Harper seemed to dial his game back a bit the rest of the season. That may have helped him avoid another serious injury, but it also may have left him something less than himself on the field.
What kind of player will Harper be in 2014? Fully healed, will he produce a full season as he did for one month in 2013? Will his infectious playing style return, or will he remain cautious, not wanting to risk a repeat performance?
That is among the biggest questions facing the Nationals in the new year. And that’s why Harper’s scary tumble at Chavez Ravine rates as his team’s most significant moment of 2013.
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