Whether the Nats reach their ultimate goal of winning a World Series this season will be determined on the chilly nights and under the bright lights of October, but on Friday night they took a necessary step towards getting there.
With their 6-1 win over the Pirates on Friday night, and the Mets' loss to the Phillies, the Nats won the National League East division championship for the third time in the last five years. For the first time since 2014, there will be postseason baseball in Washington.
A lot has happened since they were eliminated from playoff contention last September. They hired a new manager in Dusty Baker and made key offseason additions like signing Daniel Murphy in free agency. Throughout this year they made upgrades by calling up leadoff hitter Trea Turner and trading for closer Mark Melancon.
Their rotation has been a work in progress with spot starts from rookies and veterans. Stephen Strasburg signed a contract extension and then became a Cy Young contender before injuries disrupted his season. Joe Ross was also injured for months and Gio Gonzalez battled inconsistency. Meanwhile, Max Scherzer and Tanner Roark led the way as two of the best pitchers in baseball.
Their lineup saw Bryce Harper win NL Player of the Month in April, then drop off and fall into the worst slump of his career. Ben Revere, who was acquired this offseason to play a key role, didn't play to his career norms and neither did Ryan Zimmerman. It was Murphy and All-Star catcher Wilson Ramos who helped them stay afloat offensively. In the second half, Anthony Rendon caught fire and Turner changed everything with his speed and consistency at the top of their order.
Their bullpen has changed dramatically since Opening Day. Gone is Jonathan Papelbon, who was released after Melancon came over from Pittsburgh in a deadline trade. They traded for lefty Marc Rzepczynksi in August and added many September call-ups once their roster expanded.
As expected, the Nats' most potent competition within the division came from the New York Mets, the reigning NL champions. But New York was beset by injuries early on and lost Matt Harvey for the season. Lucas Duda and David Wright missed significant time, as did Steven Matz and Jacob deGrom. They played well enough to remain in playoff contention, but couldn't keep up with the Nationals.
The Nats beat the Mets 12-7 in their head-to-head series. That was a big change from 2015, when the Mets went 11-8 and swept the Nationals in two key series, one at the trade deadline and one in early September. This time it was the Nationals who took advantage, most notably with a sweep in late June and three straight wins in a four-game series in July.
The Nationals have been mostly consistent this year, but they have had their downs, including a season-high seven-game losing streak in late June. That trimmed their division lead from six games to two in a span of one week. But the Nats followed that with six straight wins, including their sweep of the Mets on June 27-29. They came out of that stretch with a six-game lead in the NL East and never really looked back. Both the Mets and Marlins began to slide, while the Nats once again gained momentum.
The tone was set for the Nationals by their best start in team history. They began the year 18-7 mainly by beating up on lesser opponents including division foes Philadelphia and Atlanta. It wasn't until April 29, their 22nd game, that they played a team that made the playoffs the year before. That was the St. Louis Cardinals, but they had no trouble with them and earned in St. Louis to kick off an impressive road trip that also included two wins at the defending-champion Kansas City Royals.
Who the Nationals play in the playoffs has not been determined, though the Los Angeles Dodgers appear to be the most likely scenario. The Nats went 1-5 against them in head-to-head battles. Against the Chicaco Cubs, who clinched the NL Central, they went 2-5. Against the Giants and Cardinals, who could also be playoff bound, they went 4-3 and 5-2, respectively.
The Nationals will have to win plenty more games to bring home the first World Series title for a Washington baseball team since 1924. But the now know they will at least have a spot in the tournament, something they know is no small feat.
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