Bryce Harper injury news: Progress made and reasons for optimism for the Nationals

After losing two of three to the Dodgers over the weekend, the Washington Nationals are all but assured of finishing with the second best record in the National League. They're 5 1/2 games behind Los Angeles for the best record and four games up on the Diamondbacks for the second best record.

There is still time to gain ground on the Dodgers or lose ground to the D-Backs, sure, but with only 13 games to play, the Nationals are safe bet to finish with the league's second best record. That means they will take on the NL Central champions in the NLDS. The Cubs currently hold a 3 1/2 game lead over the Brewers in the NL Central, though those two teams play four games in Milwaukee this week, so the race isn't over yet.

Anyway, the Nationals have already clinched the NL East title -- they were the first team to clinch a postseason spot this year -- and they're essentially locked into the league's second best record, meaning there's not much to play for these final two weeks of the season. The goal the rest of the way is stay healthy, first and foremost. The Nationals have had more than their fair share of injuries this year already. They don't want any more.

Bryce Harper, one of the team's many injured players, is currently working his way back from a knee injury suffered on August 13, when he slipped on a wet base. Harper recently started running and throwing, and, over the weekend, he took batting practice for the first time since suffering the injury.

There's still more work to be done -- Harper has yet to run the bases and that'll be a big test for the knee -- but Harper is making progress and that's the most important thing. And even though the team will be playing what amount to meaningless games the rest of the season, the Nationals do need Harper back as soon as possible. Why? So he can get ready for the postseason.

The minor league postseason is just about over. There is nowhere for Harper to get competitive at-bats right now aside from the big leagues and Instructional League down at the team's spring training site, so there's no middle ground here. Harper can get back in the swing of things in low intensity Instructional League at-bats or in MLB games. It'll have to be MLB games.

The Nationals do not want Harper to see big league caliber pitching for the first time in nearly two months in a postseason game. If that's what has to happen based on his rehab timetable, then it'll happen, but it's not ideal. In a perfect world the Nationals would get Harper back next week so he can get some at-bats under his belt before October, just to get his stroke back at the plate.

While Harper has been sidelined, Washington's fill-in right fielders have hit an unfathomable .144/.226/.243 in 127 plate appearances. Jayson Werth and Alejandro De Aza have been handling right field duties these last few weeks. Going from Harper's .326/.419/.614 to .144/.226/.243 is pretty brutal. Good thing the Nationals clinched early, huh?

Point is, there is no replacing Harper. The Nationals are a legitimate World Series contender and they're at their best when he's in the lineup. And the sooner he gets back into the lineup, the sooner the shakes off the rust and can be a full go for the postseason.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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