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Quality at-bats propel Nationals to big win

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Quality at-bats propel Nationals to big win

There was no shortage of tangible evidence Tuesday night what the Nationals' lineup is capable of doing now that it is complete for the first time all season. Wilson Ramos' 2-run homer in the bottom of the second. Yunel Escobar and Ian Desmond's 2-out RBI doubles later. And, most notably, Ryan Zimmerman's sixth-inning grand slam that blew the game wide open and ensured this 8-3 victory over the Padres.

There was less-tangible evidence of it, as well, though, in the form of several long, well-executed at-bats by a host of Nationals hitters. Some didn't even result in a baserunner, but all helped contribute to the overall effort and certainly helped knock San Diego starter James Shields out in the sixth inning with his pitch count a whopping 121.

"Great at-bats," manager Matt Williams said. "When our guys are seeing the baseball well, we get those at-bats. ... It just extends innings for us. It ups the pitch-count for the opposing pitcher. It gives us opportunity. Good 'grind' at-bats tonight."

That this came the same night the Nationals fielded a complete, healthy lineup for the first time all season may not have been coincidental. With Denard Span returning from a 7-week stint on the DL with a lower back injury, Williams was able to construct a lineup that simply looked more imposing on paper: Span, Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon at the top; Bryce Harper, Escobar and Zimmerman in the middle; and Desmond and Ramos at the bottom.

Those last two had often been forced to hit cleanup and fifth earlier this summer, when the Nationals lineup was cobbled together every afternoon. Now they're hitting seventh and eighth, still more than capable of coming up with big hits no matter their batting position.

"To have everyone back, and to see that, is nice," Zimmerman said. "It doesn't mean that we automatically score runs every game. We still have to go out there with a good approach and grind out at-bats. But it's nice to have everyone."

Especially when they can string together quality at-bats like they did Tuesday. Nationals batters managed to produce 18 plate appearances of at least five pitches, 12 of them coming vs. Shields in the first 5 2/3 innings.

As happy as Ramos was about his second-inning homer, he seemed more proud of his 10-pitch at-bat in the bottom of the fourth, even though it ended in a strikeout.

"That at-bat made me feel confident, because I fight all my at-bat," said the catcher, now 5 for his last 10. "I don't care about the strikeout. I just care about how good I feel at the plate right now."

There was some controversy mixed in, during Harper's sixth-inning at-bat, with one on and two out. He bounced a grounder to first, with the Padres' Jedd Gyorko scooping up the ball and stepping on the bag for what he thought was the final out of the inning. Harper, though, reacted in pain, limping around the batter's box, and the umpiring crew ruled it a foul ball off his right foot.

The only problem: No replay could definitively show the ball actually striking any part of Harper.

It wouldn't have been a big deal, except San Diego reliever Mark Rzepczynski wound up walking Harper a couple pitches later. Then right-hander Bud Norris walked Escobar to load the bases, and then he served up Zimmerman's grand slam on a 2-0 pitch, turning a 4-2 game into an 8-2 rout.

Harper played coy when asked about the foul ball ruling afterward.

"I'm just excited that Zim hit the homer," he said. "That's all I'm going to say."

Padres manager Pat Murphy was less coy, going on a tirade against the umpires the following inning after seeing a replay of Harper's swing that got him ejected.

Whatever actually happened, the Nationals took advantage of the situation. And thus they won for the fifth time in seven games, posting their first 3-game winning streak since the All-Star break.

They may not have gained any ground after the seemingly unstoppable Mets won yet again in Philadelphia. But for the first time in a long time, they know they've got all their pieces in place, hoping it didn't happen too late to make a run at the division title.

"This lineup we have right now, this is what we wanted all year long," Harper said. "We're just going to get better as we play. And over this last month-and-a-half, it's going to be a lot of fun for us. Everyone's excited to get going. If we play like this, I think we'll be just fine."

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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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