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82 wins for Nats ... and still counting

82 wins for Nats ... and still counting

When victory No. 82 in the most successful baseball season in the District of Columbia in 43 years was official, the reaction on the field and in the clubhouse at Nationals Park was no different than after any of the previous 81 wins.

Tyler Clippard and Kurt Suzuki met at the pitchers' mound to shake hands. Players lined up for their customary high-fives. The same mix tape of songs heard after every win was pumped through the clubhouse stereo system.

Most Nationals didn't even realize their 2-1 Labor Day triumph over the Cubs had secured the first winning season by a D.C. ballclub since Ted Williams' 1969 Senators did it at the recently renamed RFK Stadium.

"I wasn't really concerned about that," manager Davey Johnson insisted.

"That's been the farthest thing from our goal," first baseman Adam LaRoche added.

"We want to take it to the next level," Tyler Clippard chimed in. "We don't want to stop there. That's what's exciting about the season."

All fair points, and all evidence of just how far the Nationals have come in such a short amount of time. When this team opened its season five months ago against these same Cubs, a winning record would have constituted a significant accomplishment.

But as the wins began piling up and the magic number suddenly became part of the local lexicon, the bar for success kept getting raised. Now, anything short of the first postseason berth by a D.C. ballclub since 1933 would be a huge disappointment.

So the most important development out of Monday's game from the Nationals' perspective wasn't how many wins they had at the end of the day but who earned that win with another impressive pitching performance: Ross Detwiler.

In churning out seven scoreless innings, Detwiler improved to 9-6 on the season, lowered his ERA to 3.15 and left his teammates feeling as confident as ever about his ability to keep winning games down the stretch and perhaps into October.

"He's been great for us this year, and it's really only the tip of the iceberg for him," Ryan Zimmerman said of the 26-year-old left-hander. "He's still learning how to pitch, so he's come a long way. I think we're all proud of how he's learned from his mistakes and grown and become the pitcher he is."

Where Detwiler used to be good for four or five innings before fading, he now appears to get stronger as the game progresses. It's no longer a big deal for him to complete seven innings, nor to pitch his way out of jams as he did a couple of times on Monday.

He's learned both to be aggressive with his fastball early in the count but also to know when to turn to his offspeed stuff in a pinch. Put it all together, and the Nationals' current No. 5 starter (and soon-to-be No. 4 starter once Stephen Strasburg is shut down) is at last living up to the promise the club saw when it drafted him sixth overall in the country in 2007.

"I'm learning myself and what I need to do in different situations," he said. "Say I'm behind in the count. I'm learning how to throw a changeup, or how to throw a sinker down in the zone, instead of just sinking in there and letting it get hit. I think that's the biggest thing."

Detwiler was aided on Monday by a couple of timely hits from some of the big bats in the Nationals' lineup. LaRoche got things started with a solo homer in the second, his team-leading 25th of the year. Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman combined to produce what proved to be a key insurance run in the eighth, with Harper singling to right and then coming all the way around to score on Zimmerman's double into the left-field corner.

That run turned out to be the difference after Clippard suffered a hiccup in the ninth, surrendering a couple of singles that allowed Chicago to plate its only run and threaten to plate the tying tally.

Clippard, though, calmly struck out Josh Vitters to end the game, secure his 30th save and secure a winning season for a once-downtrodden franchise that is at long last getting to enjoy the fruits of success.

There aren't many remaining in the organization from those early days in 2005 and 2006, when nobody quite knew what the future held for the Nationals.

As it turned out, there were plenty of dark days ahead: 100-loss seasons, front office and coaching staff overhauls, small crowds, poor TV ratings and only a glimmer of hope.

Which only makes this season sweeter for the few who have seen this thing all the way through and who understand 82 wins is only the next step toward a much loftier accomplishment.

"We've come a long way," said Zimmerman, the club's first-ever draft pick. "I guess you can't try to start an organization like we did here from the ground up and expect that to happen really quickly. We've gone through the process, and they've done things the right way. It's been a struggle sometimes and it's been frustrating, but I think now we're going to be set for not just this year, but a lot of years to come."

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Thoughts on the death of Marlins superstar Jose Fernandez

Thoughts on the death of Marlins superstar Jose Fernandez

The baseball world lost one of its best on Sunday morning with the tragic death of Marlins superstar Jose Fernandez, an ace pitcher who at just 24 years old had already established himself as arguably the most feared right-hander in baseball. He was a dominant force who was unquestionably one of the best players on the planet and a guy so many of us were genuinely excited to watch for years to come.

The details of his life off the field made his ending that much more tragic, how he had escaped from Cuba and been separated from his grandmother for so long. How just a week ago he revealed on Intagram that he and his girlfriend were expecting a child.

On the field, he had the talent to be a Hall of Famer, one of the best pitchers of all time. And by all accounts, he was a splendid person as well. On the mound his vibrant personality was easy to see through his emotional pitching style. It seemed like he was never stoic. There was always either a smile or a scowl. He lived in the moment and every pitch was an event.

It's clear how much opposing players admired him, not only with the outpour of condolences since his death, but with how they talked about him while he was still alive. Bryce Harper's famous quotes made to ESPN this spring training about how there should be more emotion and personality in the game honed in on Fernandez. He was the central example of his argument.

Here's what Harper told ESPN in March:

"Jose Fernandez is a great example. Jose Fernandez will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist. And if you hit a homer and pimp it? He doesn't care. Because you got him. That's part of the game."

That's some serious respect from a guy who who had more plate appearances against Fernandez than any other player. Because he played in the same division as Fernandez, Harper faced him 26 times. He only got four hits - not one of them for extra bases - and posted a lowly .595 OPS. Yet, he admired Fernandez and enjoyed facing him.

A lot of Nationals players saw Fernandez frequently and none of them had success. Yes, none of them.

Jayson Werth went 1-for-20 with seven strikeouts. Wilson Ramos went 3-for-18 with six strikeouts. Danny Espinosa went 2-for-16. Anthony Rendon went 3-for-22 with nine strikeouts. Ryan Zimmerman, who went 4-for-15, was a relative standout in the bunch and he couldn't solve him, either.

Ian Desmond, who left the Nats to sign with the Rangers this offseason, went 0-for-17 with 12 strikeouts against Fernandez when he was in Washington. And Desmond is a three-time Silver Slugger and two-time All-Star.

Fernandez made 10 starts against the Nats in his career and went 7-0 with a 0.99 ERA. He gave up 34 hits in 63 2/3 innings and struck out 84 batters. 

Fernandez struck out 12.9 batters per nine innings this season, the best rate in the majors. In his last outing, which was against the Nationals, he tossed eight shutout innings with 12 strikeouts, no walks and just three hits allowed. He took a first-place team and made them look like they didn't even belong on the same field.

It didn't matter who you were. You were not going to hit his high-90s fastball that moved in all sorts of directions as it crossed the plate. You weren't going to hit his curveball, that dropped in the zone with zip and precision.

He was just that good. And now he's gone.

[RELATED: Nationals took relatively smooth road to winning 2016 NL East]

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Bryce Harper's injury untimely, but Nationals' offense is heating up

Bryce Harper's injury untimely, but Nationals' offense is heating up

Notes and observations from the Nats' 10-7 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday afternoon…

Harper's untimely injury: The Nationals have another injury to worry about as they close the regular season and prepare for the playoffs, as Bryce Harper hurt his left thumb on an awkward slide into third base in Sunday's win. Now the reigning MVP heads for X-rays on Monday, hoping he didn't seriously damage the same thumb he tore a ligament in back in 2014.

The Nationals did not seem too worried based on their postgame comments to reporters, but it certainly bears watching with the playoffs set to begin in just about a week-and-a-half. Obviously, they would like to have Harper available for their postseason run, and he just happened to be heating up before he got hurt. Harper injured himself on a triple. He drove in a run earlier in the game on a groundout, had two RBI on Saturday and three hits on Friday. Harper has six hits in his last four games after having just one in his previous nine.

If Harper has to play through thumb pain moving forward, keep in mind how his 2014 problem significantly affected his power. Harper posted a career-low slugging percentage of .423. He's already struggled mightily at times this season and doesn't need anything else making it harder for him to be himself at the plate. It's a tough time for him to get hurt, but they do have over a week to get him right before the NLDS begins.

Nats offense kicking into gear: Harper's recent contributions have been part of an overall offensive surge for the Nats. With 10 runs on Sunday, the Nats have scored 29 total in their last four games. That's after posting just eight in their previous four games before that. Entering their weekend series against the Pirates, the Nats had the fewest runs of any NL team in the month of September. Offense was starting to look like a real issue for the Nationals, right as they neared the finish line of the regular season, but recently that has not been the case.

Cole, Latos, Glover continue to struggle: While the Nationals close out the final week of their regular season schedule, they will be closely evaluating their bench and bullpen in particular as they determine their final group for the playoff roster. Some tough decisions will be made on both accounts, but several Nats relievers may be pitching themselves out of contention for final spots.

A.J. Cole had another so-so outing on Sunday with three earned runs allowed on three walks and a hit in 2 2/3 innings of work. He only lasted 2 2/3 because he was ejected for throwing behind Jung Ho Kang in the third inning. Cole has now allowed 12 earned runs in his last 14 2/3 innings. That's a very discouraging trend for a guy who just a few starts ago looked like a potential playoff bullpen option.

Cole's downturn occurred following an impressive start against the Mets, an eye-opening performance against the Nats' division rival. The same thing happened to Mat Latos, who like Cole was good against the Mets but has since fallen off. Latos was charged with two earned runs on three hits and a walk in Sunday's win. He gave up two runs in his previous appearance against the Marlins on Sept. 19. That's two rough outings in a row with little time left to make an impression.

Rookie Koda Glover gave up the Pirates' final run on a homer by Kang in the bottom of the seventh. It was a two-run bomb, but the other run was charged to Sean Burnett, who was removed after walking Josh Bell with one out. Glover also gave up a run on Friday against the Pirates and has now allowed seven runs in six innings across his last seven outings. It has been a troubling stretch for a guy who had a nice start to this season and until recently looked like a potential playoff option.

Revere's best game in a while: The Nationals had 14 hits on Sunday and three of them came from center fielder Ben Revere. It was his fifth game this season with at least three hits and his first since July 1. Since Trea Turner took over for him in center, playing time has been hard to come by for Revere, but lately he's been making the most of it. Sunday was Revere's fourth start in September and in those games he has six hits and four runs. He also added two steals in Sunday's win, his first multi-steal game since June 27.

[RELATED: Nationals took relatively smooth road to winning 2016 NL East]

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