Photo by Bob Youngentob / CSNwashington.com
Even in defeat, the Nationals clinched the NL East title on Oct. 1.
This city waited 79 years to experience something like this, the local ballclub popping champagne corks and celebrating a championship. So when it finally happened Oct. 1, it mattered not one bit to the Nationals nor their fans that it happened in spite of a loss.
Decades from now, few will remember that the Nationals clinched their first NL East title -- the first baseball title of any kind for a Washington major-league team since 1933 -- by virtue of the Braves losing 2-1 to the Pirates only moments before the Nats were shut out by the Phillies, 2-0.
"The way it happened tonight, it doesn't matter," a soaked Ryan Zimmerman said on the field at Nationals Park some 45 minutes later. "We put ourselves in that position, to have the luxury of making the other team have to play perfect baseball. We played a great 159 games to get to that point. We should be commended for that."
What appeared to be a foregone conclusion for weeks -- they held an 8 1/2-game lead on Atlanta with 19 to go -- had suddenly turned into anything but a formality. After squandering an opportunity to clinch on the road in St. Louis, the Nationals returned home for the final series of the regular season, their magic number stuck on 1.
It would have remained at that lonely number had the Braves found a way to rally late in Pittsburgh and keep their last-ditch hopes alive, because the Nationals were unable to take care of business themselves and were shut out by the Phillies' Kyle Kendrick.
But the crowd of 35,387 on a Monday night in October still got to celebrate once the score from Pittsburgh went final. With the Nationals' still needing to bat in the bottom of the ninth, players began celebrating with high-fives and hugs.
They went down quietly at the plate to end the game, then retreated to their clubhouse for a raucous celebration that featured everything from Gio Gonzalez pouring beer on 86-year-old owner Ted Lerner's head to 19-year-old Bryce Harper and 9-year-old Drake LaRoche spraying apple cider.
Then the celebration moved back onto the field, where thousands of fans had waited to experience it all themselves. Players showered them with booze, took victory laps around the warning track and relished an accomplishment that hadn't been realized in this town in nearly eight decades.
"This division is tough," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "To me it's as tough, if not the toughest, division in baseball. And we won it."