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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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MLB Trade Rumors: Nats reportedly willing to trade Giolito for Miller, but Yankees aren't

MLB Trade Rumors: Nats reportedly willing to trade Giolito for Miller, but Yankees aren't

The Nationals are very interested in acquiring a closer before the trade deadline on Monday.

The hang up has been — as it was with a potential deal for Aroldis Chapman — with the number of pieces they would have to give up in the process.

While keeping all of their top prospects would be ideal, a source close to the MLB's Jon Morosi believes the Nationals would be willing to trade 22-year-old RHP Lucas Giolito to the Yankees for 31-year-old closer Andrew Miller.

RELATED: WHO ARE THE NATS' TOP TRADE DEADLINE TARGETS?

The Yankees had previously insisted that they would be keeping Miller, but with the team looking to stockpile young talent for the future, a one-for-one trade would do them well. But having just dealt Chapman, the Yankees may want more in return, which the Nationals have balked at in recent talks.

But Miller would be an upgrade from the Nationals' current situation.

Jonathan Papelbon has been shaky and inconsistent as of late, and while Shawn Kelley has been capable of spot closing duties, it is clear that the team is deficient in that department. Miller only has nine saves this season, but has played second fiddle to Chapman and his blistering pitch speed. Miller has a 1.39 ERA and has struck out 77 batters this season.

Miller is a good closer, but is he worth giving up a bona fide top prospect in Lucas Giolito?

According to fellow MLB Network reporter Jon Heyman, the Yankees reportedly think it's the other way around.

One thing is for sure, the answer will become clear by the end of the weekend.

RELATED: NATS' INTERESTED IN PIRATES' ALL-STAR CLOSER

 

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Report: Nats talking to Pirates about All-Star closer Melancon

Report: Nats talking to Pirates about All-Star closer Melancon

With Aroldis Chapman now in Chicago, the Nationals have moved on to other options in their search for bullpen help.

They have been linked to Andrew Miller of the Yankees and Wade Davis of the Royals.

On Friday, another veteran name emerged on the rumor mill. That would be All-Star closer Mark Melancon of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

RELATED: NATS' TOP TRADE DEADLINE TARGETS

See this tweet from FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal:

Melancon, like Chapman, would be a rental, as his contract expires after this season. He is a three-time All-Star who finished eighth in NL Cy Young voting in 2015.

Melancon has been brilliant for Pittsburgh this year with a 1.51 ERA and 30 saves in 33 chances. He led the majors last season with 51 saves in 53 tries.

What stands out about this rumor, though, is that the Pirates would even be willing to part with Melancon. They are currently just two games out of an NL wild card spot. Teams in their position do not usually become sellers.

Because of that, one would have to imagine the price would be high for Melancon, as Pittsburgh has no urgency to move him. One could argue they have no reason to in the first place.

Regardless, it's good news for the Nats if the Pirates will listen to offers. Melancon would be a rare commodity on the trade market as a closer with experience and a long track record of proven results.

[RELATED: Papelbon's job as Nats closer now a real question]

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NL East: Marlins trade for two starters, load up for pennant race

NL East: Marlins trade for two starters, load up for pennant race

No one in the NL East has been as aggressive at this year's trade deadline than the Miami Marlins.

Five games back from the Nats in second place, the Marlins already acquired closer Fernando Rodney from the Padres late last month. Now they have pulled off an even bigger deal with San Diego to bring in starters Andrew Cashner and Colin Rea.

The Marlins also received reliever Tayron Guerrero in what amounts to a seven-player deal. Off to the Padres are starter Jarred Cosart, first baseman prospect Josh Naylor, minor league pitcher Luis Castillo, as well as injured reliever Carter Capps, who is currently recovering from Tommy John surgery.

In landing Cashner and Rea, the Marlins get two right-handers who could ultimately upgrade their rotation, but both have been ineffective so far this season. Cashner, 29, is 4-7 with a 4.76 ERA and a 2.23 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the worst of his career. Rea, 26, is 5-5 with a 4.98 ERA and a 1.73 SO/BB rate.

Cashner presents the biggest upside as a guy who just two years ago held a 2.55 ERA across 19 starts. The year before that, in 2013, he posted a 3.09 ERA in 31 outings across 175 innings pitched.

Both pitchers will have to be better than they have been to make this trade a win for the Marlins, but they now have some much-needed depth behind Jose Fernandez in their rotation. They addressed their biggest need in hopes of separating themselves from the Mets and catching up to the Nationals.

ESPN first reported the trade on Friday morning.

[RELATED: Papelbon's job as Nats closer now a real question]

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