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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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Nationals win 6-2 after Stephen Strasburg leaves in second inning

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USA TODAY Sports

Nationals win 6-2 after Stephen Strasburg leaves in second inning

PHOENIX -- Stephen Strasburg left after struggling with his control in the second inning, and the Washington Nationals wrapped up a successful nine-game trip with a 6-2 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sunday.

There was no word from the Nationals during the game explaining the standout right-hander's departure.

Strasburg, 10-3 with a 3.31 ERA entering the game, uncharacteristically walked the No. 8 and No. 9 batters in the second inning before departing with a 5-0 lead. He threw 51 pitches, 29 strikes.

Brian Goodwin's leadoff homer ignited a four-run first inning off Robbie Ray (9-5), who lasted five innings, allowing five runs.

Bryce Harper singled in the first to extend his hitting streak to 16 games.

Wilmer Difo hit his second home run of the season off reliever T.J. McFarland in the seventh.

Joe Blanton (1-2) got two outs and earned the win.

The NL East-leading Nationals took two of three in Arizona to go 7-2 on the trip.

Nine players batted for Washington in the opening inning. Goodwin started it with a booming shot high above the home run line across the batter's eye in straightaway center.

Difo and Harper singled and Ryan Zimmerman's sacrifice fly made it 2-0. Daniel Murphy walked and Anthony Rendon singled in a run. Jose Lobaton capped the scoring with a two-out RBI single before Strasburg bounced into a fielder's choice to end Ray's 39-pitch inning.

Arizona broke through with two runs in the fifth.

Chris Iannetta had a pinch-hit single with one out and David Descalso walked before Ketel Marte and David Peralta each singled in a run. With runners at first and third and one out, Blanton came on to strike out Paul Goldschmidt and got Chris Owings to ground into a fielder's choice.

The Diamondbacks had runners at second and third with one out in the sixth but Enny Romero struck out A.J. Pollock and Descalso bounced out to second. Romero left the game in the seventh with an apparent injury.

Arizona, 3-6 since the All-Star break, stranded 11 runners.

Washington's Andrew Stevenson, called up from Triple-A Syracuse, was 0 for 2 in his major league debut.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: Washington placed OF Chris Heisey on the 10-day DL. Heisey strained his left groin in Saturday night's 4-3 victory. Additionally, OF Ryan Raburn was placed on the bereavement list.

Diamondbacks: J.D. Martinez appeared in his first game in Arizona as a Diamondback after missing three games with a bruised wrist, the result of being hit by a pitch in his Diamondbacks debut. He walked as a pinch hitter in the seventh.

UP NEXT

Nationals: Washington has Monday off and hosts Milwaukee on Tuesday. RH Edwin Jackson makes his second start for the Nationals.

Diamondbacks: Arizona begins a three-game home series against Atlanta on Monday night. Zack Greinke (11-4, 2.93 ERA), 9-0 with a 2.41 ERA in 11 home starts, goes for the Diamondbacks. R.A. Dickey (6-6, 4.14) counters for the Braves.

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Bryce Harper powers Nationals past Diamondbacks

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Bryce Harper powers Nationals past Diamondbacks

PHOENIX -- The newest additions to the Washington bullpen came through when called upon to help deliver a victory to their new team.

Sean Doolittle stranded the potential tying run by escaping a jam for his second save for Washington, and Ryan Madson tossed a scoreless eighth inning as the Nationals held off the Arizona Diamondbacks 4-3 on Saturday night.

"The game can really speed up on you once you start getting guys on base," said Doolittle, who with Madson arrived in a trade with Oakland earlier in the week. "The crowd and the energy of the stadium can kind of take over and ... you have to be mindful enough to step off the mound, slow the game down a bit, kind of press reset."

Bryce Harper homered and drove in two runs, and starting pitcher Tanner Roark struck out a season-high 11. Roark (8-6) gave up two runs and three hits in seven innings for the NL East-leading Nationals.

"Curveball felt good. Just keep the hitter guessing," Roark said.

Harper hit his 25th home run on a full-count offspeed pitch from Anthony Banda (0-1), who lost in his major league debut.

Chris Iannetta hit a two-out RBI double in the bottom half, but the Nationals opened a 4-1 lead with a three-run sixth.

Harper hit a run-scoring double and scored on Ryan Zimmerman's double, and Anthony Rendon beat out an RBI single that sent Zimmerman home.

"They had a young guy out there that throws the ball really hard, has good command. He's going to be really good in the next couple of years for sure," Harper said of Banda. "Just got him this time and got a few runs up there."

A.J. Pollock tripled in the bottom half and scored on Jake Lamb's groundout, and Arizona reliever Jorge De La Rosa got out of bases-loaded trouble in the seventh when he struck out Harper and Zimmerman.

Doolittle, acquired from Oakland last weekend, walked Lamb leading off the ninth. Iannetta hit a broken-bat grounder to third, and Rendon's throw to second went into right field for an error that put runners on the corners.

Paul Goldschmidt hit a sacrifice fly, Chris Owings flied out and Doolittle struck out Ketel Marte for his second save with the Nationals.

"Madson's been great for us. Doolittle ... he never panics. It was great to see. It's a lot of fun to have a back end like that," Harper said.

Banda allowed four runs and seven hits in 5 2/3 innings, struck out five and walked none. He was optioned back to Triple-A Reno after the game.

"I felt confident. I threw the ball in the zone and kept attacking hitters," Banda said. "I made a couple of mistakes, Harper and the middle of the lineup."