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Harper keeps contributing to first-place Nats

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Harper keeps contributing to first-place Nats

There's no player inside the Nationals clubhouse who holds himself to a higher standard than Bryce Harper. That's what happens when you spend most of your 19 years under an intense spotlight and and do things to this point no ballplayer has ever done.

So it's not surprising Harper is kind of down on himself these days as he battles through the first prolonged slump of his life. Not only is he not leading his team in every offensive category, but he's actually being benched every once in a while by a manager who is simply trying to get the most out of the 25 players on his roster.

Stop, though, and consider how much Harper has already accomplished in less than four months in the big leagues. He's hit 12 homers (the latest coming Sunday during a 5-2 victory over the Mets). He's totaled 34 extra-base hits. He's scored 65 runs. He's stolen 13 bases.

Most importantly, he's been a significant contributor on a first-place club, and he's done it at the age of 19.

"He wouldn't be here if we didn't think he could help us win," teammate Ryan Zimmerman said. "Just like everyone when they come up, whether they're 19 or 29, you're going to have struggles where you go up and down. It takes a while for the league to learn you, and then it takes a while for you to learn the league. So it kind of goes back and forth until you get consistent.

"But Harp comes here every day. He's ready to work and he attacks his weaknesses, is I think the best way to put it. He's not afraid to go out there and fail and learn from it. He's been a big part of this team."

He certainly was this weekend, playing a key role in both of the Nationals' victories over the Mets.

Harper's fourth-inning single Friday night helped set the stage for Michael Morse's grand slam. One inning later, he crushed a pitch from Johan Santana into the bleachers for a two-run homer.

Benched by manager Davey Johnson Saturday night -- against his will -- Harper returned to the lineup Sunday with a vengeance. He roped an RBI triple to right-center in the third, then belted another homer off the facade of the second-deck in the fifth.

"I think he was trying to send a message to me: 'Don't bench me,'" Johnson said with a laugh.

Harper was reluctant afterward to delve into any details about his hot weekend or what, if anything, he did differently to turn things around after a 32-game stretch in which he hit .171.

"Nothing," he insisted. "Still the same swing. The same since I've been 5 years old. Look at the video."

Harper probably isn't content with his overall numbers -- he needed this 2-for-4 performance to raise his batting average to .251 -- but he tries to remember the big picture.

"I'm never satisfied with my work," he said. "I'm never satisfied with anything I do. We're in first place, and that's the biggest thing I care about. My numbers could be really crappy, but we're in first place. That's all that matters."

Harper may not be satisfied, but he might not realize he's still accomplishing things few, if any, teenagers have ever accomplished in this sport. He's now one of only five players to hit at least 12 home runs in his age-19 season, joining two Hall of Famers (Mel Ott, Mickey Mantle), one future Hall of Famer (Ken Griffey Jr.) and a former phenom whose career tragically derailed because of injury (Tony Conigliaro).

And none of those others hit six triples to go along with their 12 homers at age 19, making Harper the first to pull off that feat.

"The kid's got all the talent in the world," said Danny Espinosa, who also homered Sunday. "As long as he doesn't press, and as long as he's not trying to force things to happen, he'll be fine. Everyone sees the amount of talent he has."

The 2012 Nationals as a team are loaded with talent, and because of it they own baseball's best record at 75-46, a 5-game lead on the Braves in the NL East and an 8 12-game lead for the NL's final wild-card slot.

They also now boast one of only three 16-game winners in the majors, with Gio Gonzalez on Sunday joining Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto and Tampa Bay's David Price. Gonzalez is the first pitcher in the Nationals' eight seasons of existence to reach the 16-win plateau.

"This is definitely an accomplishment we all did together," the left-hander said. "This wasn't definitely all by myself. This was 1-through-9, every single game, and they played their hearts out for me. This is a thank you to the bullpen, a thank you to the team."

That team-first mantra has been evident throughout the Nationals' clubhouse all season. There have been plenty of impressive individual accomplishments, but they all seem to take a back seat to the only stat most of these players care about: their won-loss record.

Starting with a supremely talented, 19-year-old outfielder.

"Harp just likes to come out and play the game the right way," Zimmerman said. "And at the end of the day, if he did something to help the team win, great. If not, we won, and he'll learn from it and come out tomorrow."

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May the odds be ever in your favor: Vegas sets over/unders for 2018 MLB season

May the odds be ever in your favor: Vegas sets over/unders for 2018 MLB season

The start of spring training is a glimmer of hope during the cold of winter. It means warm weather, cold beers and hot dogs at the ballpark are coming your way.

It's our first chance to get a taste of how our favorite team is shaping up for the 2018 season, and for those who are not quite into just the game itself, betting odds.

CG Technology, a Las Vegas sportsbook operator, has set the 2018 odds for each MLB team.

Specifically, how are things looking for the local teams?

RELATED: 2018 SPRING TRAINING REPORT DATES

Washington Nationals: 91 1/2 wins

The 2018 season is looked at by many as the last World Series run for some time for the Nationals and their core group of players. Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Gio Gonzalez will become free agents after the 2018 season in addition to general manager and President of Baseball Operations, Mike Rizzo.

In 2017, the team won 97 games and went on to win the NL East, but couldn't make it past the first-round of the National League Division Series. In 2018, Vegas is giving the Nats 7/2 odds of taking the National League title. They are just behind the Chicago Cubs, who knocked them out of contention last season, at 4/1 odds.

As far as winning the World Series, Vegas is giving the guys an 8/1 chance of their first title, tied with the Cubs.

Baltimore Orioles: 77 1/2 wins

The O's finished the 2017 season with 75 wins, which could be considered somewhat of an accomplishment considering their pitching resources.

The same problem will occur in 2018 as the organization hasn't signed any new starting pitchers. Vegas is giving them 50/1 odds of taking the American League title and 100/1 odds of winning the World Series.

The lack of depth in their rotation will come back to bite them as division rival New York Yankees have 5/1 odds of winning the World Series and the Red Sox have 10/1 odds.

A below average season should be expected.

A few other standouts, good and bad, include the Miami Marlins at 500/1 odds of winning the World Series, the Kansas City Royals at 200/1 and current champions, the Houston Astros, at 6/1 odds.

RELATED: FORMER NATS PITCHER ARRESTED WITH MORE THAN 40 POUNDS OF SUSPECTED COCAINE

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Former Nationals pitcher Esteban Loaiza arrested with more than 40 pounds of suspected cocaine

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Former Nationals pitcher Esteban Loaiza arrested with more than 40 pounds of suspected cocaine

SAN DIEGO — Former All-Star pitcher Esteban Loaiza has been arrested on suspicion of trafficking drugs after packages containing a white powder believed to be cocaine were found at a home he rented in Southern California, officials said Monday.

The 46-year-old former Major League Baseball player was booked Friday on charges involving the possession, transport and sale of 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of suspected cocaine worth an estimated $500,000, according to the San Diego Sheriff's Department.

Loaiza played for numerous teams between 1995 and 2008, starting with the Pittsburgh Pirates and concluding with his second stint with the Chicago White Sox. He had a 21-9 record with the Chicago White Sox in 2003 and started in the All-Star Game that year.

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He also played one season for the Washington Nationals in 2005 — the team's inaugural season in D.C. after the franchise changed from the Montreal Expos. During his one season in Washington, Loaiza finished with a 12-10 record adn a 3.77 ERA over 34 games played that year.

It was not immediately known if Loaiza had hired a lawyer and the former player could not be reached to comment. He was being held Monday for lack of $200,000 bail pending a court appearance on Wednesday.

Loaiza's agent, John Boggs, told the San Francisco Chronicle that he had no information about the arrest and that he has not spoken to Loaiza recently. He said that Loaiza had called his office early last week but Boggs was unavailable at the time.

"I am shocked and saddened by the news and had no indication he would ever be in this type of situation," Boggs said in a text to the newspaper. "I don't know how he would get himself involved in this, so it's difficult to even comment on it."

Officers stopped Loaiza for a minor traffic infraction Friday after he left the home he started renting recently in the Pacific coast community of Imperial Beach, along the U.S.-Mexico border. Authorities had the vehicle under surveillance on suspicion it was used for smuggling drugs.

When they searched the vehicle, they found a sophisticated compartment used to conceal contraband, authorities said. That led them to obtain a search warrant for Loaiza's rental home, where they found the packages of drugs, according to investigators.

The packages containing a white powder are still being tested but are believed to be cocaine, said San Diego Sheriff's Lt. Jason Vickery.

Loaiza was born in Tijuana, Mexico and was married for two years to the late Mexican-American singer Jenni Rivera. She filed for divorce shortly before she died in a plane crash in 2012.

The 43-year-old Rivera was known as the "Diva de la Banda" and died as her career was peaking. She was perhaps the most successful female singer in grupero, a male-dominated Mexico regional style, sold more than 15 million records, and moved into acting and reality television.

Loaiza sued the aircraft's owners in 2014 for wrongful death but her relatives accused him of trying to profit from her death. He denied the accusations and later retracted his lawsuit.

NBC Sports Washington contributed to this report.

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