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Nationals beat Phillies for MLB's best record

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Nationals beat Phillies for MLB's best record

The Washington Nationals -- who never posted a winning record, never reached the playoffs and never won a division title in their first seven seasons in the District -- didn't just knock down all those barriers in year eight. They managed to knock down an even bigger one: Posting the best record in the major leagues.

With a 5-1 victory over the Phillies during Wednesday's regular-season finale, the Nationals capped off a 98-64 season that wasn't surpassed by any other franchise in the big leagues and was good enough to secure home-field advantage as long as their playoff run extends.

No matter how much optimism surrounded the organization when it gathered in Viera, Fla., in late February for spring training, few could have dreamed this big.

"It's quite an accomplishment," Ryan Zimmerman, the only player to appear in a game in all eight of the Nationals seasons, said. "Obviously winning the division was a goal, and now we've done that, and we have a chance to go do some stuff in the playoffs. This is a great season, a great team, a good group of guys, and we accomplished a lot that we should be proud of. But we have a lot more to accomplish, hopefully."

They'll wipe the slate clean and begin that journey Sunday, on the road for Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the winner of Friday's winner-take-all Wild Card game between the Braves and Cardinals.

They'll enter the postseason as the No. 1 seed, a distinction that usually includes a target on their backs. But the Nationals are the only new faces among the five NL playoff participants, a group that includes the last two World Series champions (St. Louis and San Francisco) and two franchises with rich traditions that reached the postseason as recently as 2010 (Atlanta and Cincinnati).

And, as recent postseason history has shown, seeding rarely means much in October.

"I mean, once you get in, you're in, no matter how yet get there," said Jayson Werth, one of the few Nationals with significant playoff experience. "From there you need to be good, you need to be lucky, you've got to show up. It's not easy. Winning's not easy. Winning the whole thing is tough. It takes a lot. We're in good position. We've come this far and we're here. We've got a chance."

The Nationals gave themselves the best chance possible by winning Wednesday's finale and ensuring they would earn the top seed over the Reds. They did so by getting 6 23 strong innings from Edwin Jackson, who became the fifth member of the rotation to get 10 wins this year, and home runs from Zimmerman, Tyler Moore and Michael Morse, who earned a curtain call after his eighth-inning blast to right field sealed this victory.

Win No. 98 came against the club that had ruled the NL East the last five seasons but faded to an 81-81 finish this year, and it came with a helping of sour grapes from one of the Phillies' long-time leaders.

"They had a good year," shortstop Jimmy Rollins said of a Washington club that finished 17 games ahead of his Phillies. "They're a talented team. Just playing against them for a while, you know they're talented. You always knew if they put it together and found some pitching ... and they've had the opportunity to have some big draft picks, and those guys have made it up to the big leagues and it's all come together for them. So that's great for them. But with us being healthy, you know, they're still second place. But we weren't."

Six members of the Phillies' projected Opening Day lineup and rotation (Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Placido Polanco) missed a combined 309 games this season, a tough obstacle to overcome. Rollins, though, apparently forgot that five members of the Nationals' projected Opening Day lineup (Werth, Zimmerman, Morse, Ian Desmond, Wilson Ramos) and their projected closer (Drew Storen) missed a combined 380 games.

"We've played well all year long, dealt with a lot of adversity," Desmond said.

Perhaps the Nationals-Phillies rivalry that perked up in May when Cole Hamels admitted he intentionally threw at rookie Bryce Harper will carry over into 2013. Before that, though, the Nationals have more pressing matters.

They'll take Thursday off, return to Nationals Park for a closed workout on Friday, then watch the Wild Card game (scheduled to begin at 5:07 p.m.) to learn the identity of their first-ever playoff opponent.

They all insisted they have no preference between the Braves and Cardinals. Above all else, they understand every team they play from this point forward presents a real challenge.

There are no gimmes in October. That's the reward for winning 98 of 162 games.

"This is what it's all about," Werth said. "This is what you play your whole life for, to get to this point, and we've got a chance to do something special here. We've got a good team and a good group of guys, and I think the city can be proud of that."

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Stock Watch: Scherzer nearing the 20 win mark

Stock Watch: Scherzer nearing the 20 win mark

Each week this season, we’ll take the temperature of the Nationals roster to see which player's stock is rising or falling.  

Record: 4-2

Team slash: .269/.339/.426

Team ERA: 5.17

Runs per game: 6.2

 

STOCK UP 

Max Scherzer, SP: 2-0, 12.2 IP, 18 K

Another start, another win for Scherzer, who continues to make his case for the NL Cy Young Award. In fact, the Nats have won the last nine starts he’s made, while he’s posted a 2.87 ERA and 69-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio over that span. In Sunday’s season finale, the 31-year-old right hander will get a shot to earn his 20th win, a feat that would put the finishing touch on a stellar second season in D.C.

Reynaldo Lopez, RP:  1-0, 5.1 IP, 6 K, 0 ER

Given the circumstances, Saturday’s outing by Lopez might have been the finest of his rookie season. Coming in relief of Joe Ross in the third inning, the 24-year-old flamethrower tossed 5 1/3 shutout innings against the Pirates on the night that clinched the NL East title for the Nats. The performance was so impressive that Dusty Baker said after he’d consider adding Lopez to the playoff roster as a long man.

STOCK DOWN

Yusmeiro Petit, RP: 2 GP, 0-1, 2.0 IP, 5 ER

The Nats have a little over a week to configure their 25-man playoff roster, and the hardest part of the process might be putting together the bullpen. As mentioned earlier, Baker is considering adding Lopez as a potential long man. If that’s the case, would it come at Petit’s expense?

Lucas Giolito, RP:  1 GP, 2.0 IP, 4 ER   

The Nats starting rotation — especially when healthy — was obviously one of the driving forces of the team’s NL East title. That said, one of the more disappointing developments of 2016 was Giolito not emerging like the club hoped he would this year. Whether it was in a starting role or out of the bullpen, the 22-year-old prospect never quite showed the elite fastball he was said to have in the minors. Instead, he's throwing his heater in the low 90s, not fooling anyone in The Show. Of course, there's plenty of time for Giolito to progress and become the top-line starter the Nats expect him to be someday. But for now, there seems to be a larger-than-expected gap between what he is and what he could be. 

[MORE: DODGERS SET ROTATION FOR PLAYOFF SERIES AGAINST NATIONALS]

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Mets' prospect Tim Tebow hits home run on his first professional pitch

Mets' prospect Tim Tebow hits home run on his first professional pitch

Tim Tebow started his professional career Tuesday with the New York Mets instructional league team with a game against the Cardinals in Port St. Lucie, Florida.

He had about the best start you can think of, hitting the first pitch he saw over the left center field fence.

Tebow decided to take a swing at the major leagues after his pro football career flamed out.

The Denver Broncos picked him in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft, and he played in 23 games for them, one of them a dramatic win over the Steelers in the first round of the 2011 playoffs.

He couldn't find his rhythm the next season and was traded to the Jets in March 2012. He was released the next year, then eventually spent short stints with the Jets and Patriots.

He tried his hand at broadcasting, taking a job at ESPN as a college football analyst in 2013 before taking one last shot at the NFL. He signed with the Eagles in 2015 but was released after their fourth preseason game.

There was a bit of controversy surrounding Tebow's move to baseball, a sport he hadn't played full-time since 2005. People questioned whether the former Heisman Trophy winner actually had what it takes, or if he was only getting a shot because he's Tim Tebow and the Mets wanted publicity. 

So far, so good.

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