WOODBRIDGE, Va. -- For the first time since tearing a ligament in his left thumb nearly two months ago, Bryce Harper stepped to the plate Monday night batting second in a rehab start for Class A Advanced Potomac. On the first pitch he saw from Salem Red Sox right-hander Justin Haley in the first inning, the left-handed slugger took a massive cut and whiffed for strike one.
"I went up there hacking on my first pitch to try to just get that out of the way because I was so excited to hit again," said Harper, who started in left field. "Just that competitive nature going out there."
Harper worked himself back into the count in that first at-bat, and on a 2-2 count, he smacked a line drive the opposite way to left field for a single and took a grandiose turn around first base. Harper would get up again in the third inning and fall behind 0-2, but he battled back to work a two-out walk. Harper played three innings and finished the night 1-for-1.
"I just want to see pitches," Harper said. "So if I can work deep in counts and see more pitches, then that's huge for me. If I strike out or walk, then that's fine, too, because I just want to see a lot of pitches."
Harper said he felt some vibration when he connected on his single, which aggravated his thumb. But he noted that's part of the process of returning from such an injury.
"I got that knock to left, felt a little vibration, but not much," Harper said. "I think that's typical, feeling a vibration on the bat."
While on base, Harper wore a protective mitt on his left hand, similar to the one Ryan Zimmerman used during his rehab assignment. Harper said that eased some of the fear of re-injuring his thumb while sliding.
"Me and Ryan, we're going to go bake," Harper said, alluding to the contraption's resemblance to an oven mitt.
While Harper saw limited action in the field, he did catch the only fly ball that came his way off the bat of Salem right fielder Aneury Tavarez in the second inning. Harper initially turned the wrong way on the play but was able to recover and make the easy grab.
Harper said the hardest part about returning to the field was keeping his hand in a glove all game, where his thumb is spread apart from the rest of his fingers.
"That's just something I have to feel and deal with," Harper said. "And if it gets swollen or something like that, then take it easy a little bit more."
Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos started alongside Harper in his third rehab start since straining his right hamstring on June 10 against the Giants. Ramos caught nine innings and had a stellar night at the plate batting third, going 3-for-4 with a single, a three-run home run and a double in his last at-bat. It was the first time Ramos was forced to run hard for two bases out of the batter's box since his injury.
"After the double, I feel my leg is ready to go in the big leagues again," Ramos said. "I was trying to hit a double in that at-bat to try to see how [my leg] feels. And it feels great."
Harper was on first base when Ramos sneaked a line drive just inside the right-field foul pole for his second three-run home run in three rehab games. Harper had a tongue-in-cheek message for Ramos when the catcher crossed the plate.
"I just told him, 'You're terrible,'" Harper said with a smile. "It's good to see him doing well. We need Willy up there. He's one of the best hitting catchers in the league when he's hot. It's good to see him going."
Harper said he will start in center field for Potomac on Tuesday and play five innings. Nationals manager Matt Williams has said he wants Harper to play all three outfield positions during his rehab stint in Potomac, because Harper will likely move around when he returns to the big leagues considering the Nationals already have Zimmerman, Denard Span and Jayson Werth in the outfield.
And while Harper said he knows he will have to alternate positions after his return to Washington, it's not something he necessarily wants to do, especially after injuring his knee running into the outfield wall at Dodger Stadium last season, which limited him to just 118 total games, many of which he played at less than 100 percent.
"I want to get comfortable in one spot," Harper said. "I got in a little bit of trouble last year playing right field and getting hurt. So I think just trying to stay in one spot would be great. But with the outfield we have, I don't think that's going to happen. So being able to play left and play center and play right is something that I need down here."
Harper is set to play around seven games, including Monday night, for Potomac over the next week before his return at some point during the Nationals' upcoming homestand, which starts June 30 against the Rockies. For now, though, the 21-year-old slugger is just happy to be back on the diamond.
"I love this game, I love coming out here and playing," Harper said. "It's fun to get back out here and just get competitive and try to win a ballgame."
Daniel Popper is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.