Nationals lose but take NL East title anyways
Franchise's 1st division crown since Expos in 1981
Amid the postgame delirium on the field, the crushed beer cans and strewn champagne bottles collecting in the grass, pitcher Gio Gonzalez grabbed Washington Nationals owner Ted Lerner and steered him toward the gaggle of players celebrating the club's first NL East championship.
"Ted, this is your party!" the effervescent left-hander yelled. Then, turning toward teammates, Gonzalez shouted: "Hey! Who's got the cooler? This is the man, right here!"
All in all, 21-game winner Gonzalez and the rest of the first team in 79 years to bring post-season baseball back to the nation's capital threw quite a victory party at Nationals Park on Monday night. Thanks to strong pitching from Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper's burst of energy and Adam LaRoche's slugging, the Nationals won enough from April through September that even a loss on the first day of October could not stop them from achieving the sort of success that seemed so far away only a few years ago.
Despite being beaten 2-0 by the Philadelphia Phillies, the Nationals earned their first division title since moving from Montreal in 2005, because the second-place Atlanta Braves lost 2-1 at the Pittsburgh Pirates.
"This is incredible. The excitement. The joy. The fans. Smiles on everyone's faces, the excitement that's going on," Gonzalez said. "Everyone here just witnessed history. Hopefully we can try to continue that journey."
Washington, in first place since May 22, leads Atlanta by three games with two to play in the regular season. The Braves' loss finished as the top of the ninth inning ended in Washington, and the Nationals congratulated each other in their dugout with hugs, high-fives and spiked gloves.
"The way it happened tonight doesn't really matter," said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals' first draft pick in June 2005. "We put ourselves in that position to have the luxury of having the other team have to play perfect baseball. We played a great 159, 160 games to get to that point, and we should be commended for that."
When Michael Morse led off the bottom of the ninth, the PA announcer informed the crowd that the home team was the champion, and when the game ended red fireworks lit the night sky with the Capitol building off in the distance beyond left field. The scoreboard declared "NL East Division Champions."
It was the second division crown in franchise history. The Montreal Expos won the NL East in 1981, a strike-shortened season, by beating the Phillies in a best-of-five playoff.
When the game ended, the Phillies — winners of the previous five NL East titles; already eliminated from playoff contention this year — gathered in the middle of the diamond for regular post-victory handshakes.
The Nationals, meanwhile, collected in their home clubhouse for alcohol-spraying. They gathered around general manager Mike Rizzo and dumped bubbly over his shaved head. Harper, who has more homers (22) than years on earth (19), shared some apple cider with LaRoche's 9-year-old son, Drake.
"I'll remember being in the scrum in the middle of the clubhouse with all the guys, just elated and all together," Rizzo said later, once the excitement had moved out to the field, where some fans stayed to clap and chant. "We live with each other for seven months a year. Culmination of all that emotion and such a successful season for us."
On Sept. 20, the Nationals assured themselves of no worse than an NL wild-card berth — and guaranteed Washington a post-season game for the first time since the Senators lost the 1933 World Series to the New York Giants.
But even on that night of success, Washington manager Davey Johnson made clear he wasn't all that interested in merely getting a chance to play in a one-game, in-or-out, wild-card playoff. No, he wanted his team to focus on bigger prizes at hand, including a division championship.
With Washington back home from a six-game road trip and on the verge of a big accomplishment, the first roar of the night from the crowd of 35,287 came a few minutes before the first pitch, when a booming voice over the loudspeakers let everyone know that the home team's "magic number is down to one!"
Ready to roar, the spectators often rose at key moments, whether their team was at the plate or in the field. Fans also reacted with applause and cheers when the out-of-town scoreboard in right-centre field showed that Pittsburgh had taken a lead against Atlanta in the fifth inning.
All in all, quite a contrast from the mostly silent, mostly empty ballparks that were home to Nationals teams that lost 100 games apiece in 2008 and 2009. Then again, those worst-in-baseball clubs earned No. 1 overall picks in the amateur draft that turned into Strasburg and Harper.
Rizzo also oversaw a rebuilding of a farm system and two very key additions from outside the organization: Gonzalez, acquired from Oakland for four prospects last off-season; and Jayson Werth, signed away from Philadelphia with a $126 million free-agent deal in December 2010.
"These guys have been through a lot. That just goes to show you it's not easy. It's not easy getting to this point," Werth said. "Luck plays into it a lot. You've got to be on good teams — and I'm on a good team."
Werth was brought to Washington, in part, to show the club how to win, having been a part of the Phillies' perennial division champions and 2008 World Series winners. And so it was somehow fitting that the Nationals' title came on a night when they were facing the Phillies.
"Made me mad. Yes it did. Very much so. I'm a bad loser," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said about watching Washington clinch against his club. "Nobody should be a good loser. I'm a bad loser and I always will be."
Zimmerman lived through plenty of losses in past seasons, but twice decided to re-sign and stay with a team close to where he grew up in Virginia.
As he spoke Monday, Zimmerman wore a pair of white ski goggles around his neck, the better to protect his eyes from the spray of beverages.
Not his purchase. Whose?
"This is from Werth," Zimmerman said. "He's been through a few."
Kyle Kendrick (11-12) pitched seven scoreless innings for the win.
John Lannan (4-1) gave up two runs in five innings for Washington.
Pirates 2, Braves 1
Fredi Gonzalez didn't really expect the Atlanta Braves to catch the Washington Nationals. Not after trailing the front-running and rarely faltering Nationals all summer and into the fall.
Still, the Braves manager took pride in the way his team stubbornly hung in there. And while Atlanta's chase for the National League East title officially ended with a 2-1 loss to Pittsburgh on Monday night, Gonzalez was hardly disappointed.
A year after a stunning September collapse kept them out of the post-season, the Braves will host the wild card game on Friday against either St. Louis or Los Angeles. Last time Gonzalez checked, you didn't need to clinch a division title to win a World Series.
"It's something we shoot for, the division," Gonzalez said. "We didn't get it, but we've got the wild card game and you know there's been many, many teams that go through the wild card to win the World Series."
The Braves will have to survive the one-game playoff to make sure their second playoff appearance in eight years isn't just a cameo. Atlanta couldn't get much going against the Pirates, who rode youngsters Jeff Locke and Starling Marte to one of their more satisfying wins in the last six weeks.
Locke (1-3) scattered two hits over six innings to pick up his first major league win and Starling Marte tripled, homered and scored both runs as Pittsburgh relished the role of mild spoiler. Jared Hughes worked the ninth to earn his second save.
"It's a little disappointing we're going to finish second," said Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones. "But we live on past Wednesday."
Paul Maholm (13-11) gave up two runs on five hits in seven innings while losing to his former team for the first time, striking out eight and walking three.
"For the most part I did mostly what I wanted," Maholm said. "Obviously I'd rather not give up the two runs, but you go seven and give up two, most of the time you're going to come out pretty good."
Locke managed to keep the hottest team in the National League in check. Atlanta's only run came on Jason Heyward's RBI single in the third but the Braves left the bases loaded when Freddie Freeman grounded out to third to end the inning.
Getting out of the jam largely unscathed was a major step for Locke, who had been prone to allowing one bad inning undo an otherwise decent outing.
"I think there was a couple things out there tonight that really helped his growth," said Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle. "Getting through the third and only giving up one run was one of them."
Atlanta's lead didn't last long. Marte tripled to lead off the third and scored Chase d'Arnaud's grounder to second.
The Braves went quietly until the ninth, when Freeman reached on an error with one out. Reed Johnson lined to left and Brian McCann grounded out to Hughes that led to cheers in two cities about 250 miles apart.
"It is what it is now," Jones said. "We play Friday and all our concentration should be on getting ourselves ready for Friday."