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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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Ivan Rodriguez becomes first former Nationals player to be voted into Hall of Fame

Ivan Rodriguez becomes first former Nationals player to be voted into Hall of Fame

Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez became the first former Nationals player (2005-present) to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Wednesday. He was inducted in his first year of eligibility, marking the 52nd first-ballot hall of famer in history. 

Rodriguez, who was the first free agent signed by current Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, played the final two seasons of his career with Washington in 2010-11. During his time in D.C. he hit .254 six homers and 68 RBI. Pudge's greatest contribution to the Nationals came from his leadership and work ethic. He guided Stephen Strasburg through his rookie season and also helped develop Wilson Ramos so he could pass the torch to him. 

During his 21-year career, Pudge made 14 all-star teams, won 13 gold gloves, won seven silver slugger awards, led his league in caught-steeling percentage nine times, and was named American League MVP in 1999 with the Texas Rangers. He became a World Series champion in 2003 with the Florida Marlins. Pudge's 13 gold gloves are the most ever by a catcher, and his 2,844 career hits are the most ever by a player who appeared in 50 percent or more of their career games as a catcher.  

In addition to Rodriguez, former Montreal Expos great Tim Raines was inducted to the Hall of Fame. Raines is the franchise leader (Expos/Nationals) in walks (793), runs (947), stolen bases (635) and triples (82). Raines was an all-star seven times and he won a silver slugger in 1986 with the Expos. He is the only player in MLB history with at least 100 triples, 150 homers and 600 RBI in a career, and the only player to steal at least 70 bases in six consecutive seasons. 

Related: Bryce Harper wants Nationals to spend money on players, not team store

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Bryce Harper wants Nationals to invest in Matt Wieters, Greg Holland more than facilities

Bryce Harper wants Nationals to invest in Matt Wieters, Greg Holland more than facilities

Bryce Harper isn't one to keep his opinions to himself. The Nationals slugger is outspoken about what he wants, whether that's to "Make Baseball Fun Again" or to make at least $400 million on his next contract

On Wednesday, he gave his take on how the Nats should be investing their money this summer. Here's Harper responding to a tweet from ESPN's Jim Bowden.

Harper's message: Players over everything else. Sorry, gift shop. 

It's plain to see where the 2015 NL MVP is going with this. Obviously, he wants as much talent around him as possible for a chance to win the World Series. 

Matt Wieters, a four-time All-Star catcher, and Greg Holland, a two-time All-Star closer, could be significant additions to Washington's roster. 

Harper is set to become a free agent in 2018, at which point an organization like the New York Yankees will be prepared to offer him both a massive salary and a massive investment in the players around him.

The slugger probably hopes his current team will try to surround him with winning pieces in an effort to keep him. But if a report about the Nationals' reaction to his contract demands proves accurate, they may have another agenda. 

There's Harper drama around the Nationals? Just a regular Wednesday here in Washington.

MORE NATIONALS: Nationals avoid arbitration with Harper, three others