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LaRoche gets well-earned praise

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LaRoche gets well-earned praise

The first standing ovation came as Adam LaRoche stood on second base, his bases-clearing double having just given the Nationals a comfortable lead over the Pirates they would not relinquish, the scoreboard congratulating the veteran first baseman on recording his 1,000th career hit.

The second standing ovation came moments later, after the bottom of the seventh ended and LaRoche began walking back toward the Nationals' dugout to swap out his batting helmet for his cap and glove. Realizing all this applause was directed solely at him, the 32-year-old quickly doffed that cap to the gathering of 25,942.

That's as much of a public display of emotion as you're ever likely to see out of LaRoche. Rest assured, he was beaming inside during that moment, the highlight of the Nationals' 7-4 victory.

"It was really special, to say the least," he said. "Obviously going through what I did last year and not being able to be a big part of it, and now to come back and have the fans behind me the way they are ... it was perfect."

Stop for a moment and think about how unlikely a scene this would have been only a few months ago, when Nationals fans' lasting image of LaRoche was either his .172 batting average or his left arm in a sling following season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum.

Even after making a full recovery, LaRoche still spent much of the winter listening to chatter about the Nationals making a play for free agent Prince Fielder, a move that would have resulted in him being kicked to the curb despite his 8 million salary.

LaRoche, a baseball lifer whose father and brother played in the big leagues, said all the right things and insisted he wasn't offended by all the Fielder talk. But he did admit he entered this season feeling like he had something to prove. Not to the Nationals or to their fans. But to himself.

"I don't look at what's going on, on the outside and feel like I've got to come here and prove the salary, or prove missing a year," he said. "But as a competitor, I wanted to prove to myself that I could come back from this surgery and do what I know I'm capable of doing. So to come out and do it is nice reassurance."

This is beyond reassurance, though. A consistent, steady hitter throughout his nine-year career, LaRoche has never stormed out of the gates like this. Following Wednesday night's 3-for-4, four-RBI performance, he now ranks seventh in the NL in batting average (.339), ninth in home runs (seven), third in RBI (29), fifth in on-base percentage (.429) and sixth in OPS (1.024).

More importantly, he's consistently produced big hits in meaningful situations for a Nationals team missing Michael Morse and Jayson Werth and still waiting for Ryan Zimmerman to catch fire.

"He's been indispensable," manager Davey Johnson said. "We're missing the guys in the lineup. Even Zim's been struggling. And he's been one constant from Day 1. Drove in a lot of big runs. Just a big player."

LaRoche wasn't the only contributor to this victory. Ian Desmond and Xavier Nady also homered, the latter doing it for the 100th time in his career. Gio Gonzalez struck out a season-high 10 batters over seven strong innings. And Henry Rodriguez overcame his demons and faced the minimum in the ninth inning to earn the save.

But this was a night to recognize LaRoche and what he's meant to the Nationals through the first six weeks of this season. Obviously, it's still early, but if they held an MVP vote today, LaRoche would probably show up on the ballot. And he certainly deserves consideration for his first All-Star berth.

"I've never been mentioned in any All-Star ballots, considering my typical first halves (he was a career .229 hitter in April and May before this season)," he said. "It would be neat. It would be a true honor."

Whether LaRoche is recognized by the rest of the baseball world or not, his teammates and coaches know very well what he's doing right now.

"He's been mighty big," Johnson said.

"Mr. Clutch," Gonzalez added.

LaRoche, in his typical, laid-back, country-boy manner, shrugs it all off. He's never been one to seek the spotlight or the admiration of fans.

Nor is one to say I told you so to anyone who was ready to dump him over the winter.

"I don't think that's his personality," Desmond said. "I think he understands the game. He's been around the game his whole life, literally. I think he came back, and if anything, he wanted to fulfill his contract and not necessarily repay the organization, but show the organization that he's going to fulfill his contract and play well and make it worth their money."

As the season nears the quarter-pole, the Nationals are more than getting their money's worth out of LaRoche.

Eight million dollars for an MVP candidate? Not a bad price by today's standards.

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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