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Nats clinch NL East Division title

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Nats clinch NL East Division title

Updated at 1:35 a.m.

They stood out there on the field during the top of the ninth inning, trying to keep their focus on whichever Phillies player had stepped into the batter's box. Really, though, everyone with the Washington Nationals -- and everyone in the crowd of 35,387 -- was focused on the upper left-hand corner of the out-of-town scoreboard in right field, where their true fate was being determined.

Two hundred forty-six miles away in Pittsburgh, the Atlanta Braves were down to their final out, unexpectedly trailing the Pirates 2-1 and desperately trying to rally, a man on first and Brian McCann at the plate during an at-bat that seemed to take 79 years to be completed.

"We were out there for the top half, and it flashes up there that there's two outs with a man on first," right fielder Jayson Werth said. "And we played the whole inning with two outs and a man on first!"

Then Drew Storen got Domonic Brown to ground out to second just as Travis Hughes got McCann to tap a comebacker for the final out at PNC Park, and suddenly a wild celebration was underway in Washington, even though the home team was on the verge of a 2-0 loss to its hated rivals.

"We came in the dugout, and all the fans were going nuts," Werth said. "So we started going nuts. I don't know if we even knew."

It certainly didn't take long for them to figure it out. Thanks to the Braves' surprise loss to a franchise that just clinched its 20th consecutive losing season, the Nationals clinched their first-ever NL East title.

"That's the first time in my life I rooted for the Pirates," said Adam LaRoche, who actually manned first base in Pittsburgh from 2007-09.

Shut out by the Phillies? Nobody seemed to mind.

"The way it happened tonight, it doesn't matter," said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the organization's first-ever draft pick in 2005. "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."

Indeed, a Nationals club that hadn't even posted a winning record during its first seven seasons since relocating from Montreal turned itself around in 2012, taking a giant leap forward much faster than most believed possible.

They spent a total of 10 days in April and May in second place in the division, then with a 5-2 win in Philadelphia on May 22 moved back into first place. And never relinquished that spot atop the standings, despite injuries to several key players, a couple of meltdowns by fill-in closers and the highly publicized shutdown of their young ace.

"I don't care how we did it," principal owner Mark Lerner said. "Ninety-six wins, we deserve it."

When the night began, the Nationals weren't counting on a Braves loss. They were dead-set on winning themselves and dog-piling in the center of the diamond.

But it quickly became obvious they faced a stiff challenge from a Phillies club that had nothing left to play for but for at least a few more hours technically remained the five-time defending division champs.

They jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the top of the second, getting a triple to deep left-center from rookie Darin Ruf off starter John Lannan. It was a battle from that point on for Lannan, who kept putting himself into jams but managed to wriggle his way out of them. He got another double-play grounder in the third, then got a huge play from LaRoche on a 3-2 double play with the bases loaded in the fourth, then struck out Chase Utley to end the fifth.

His pitch count at 80 and his spot in the lineup due to come up third in the bottom of the inning, Lannan's night was done. It wasn't his finest outing by any means, but he somehow managed to limit the damage and give his team a chance.

Not that the Nationals lineup had many chances against Kyle Kendrick, the sinker-balling right-hander who had them eating out of his hand for seven innings. At one point, Kendrick retired eight consecutive batters on groundballs. This against a lineup that roughed him up for five runs in two-plus innings last week in Philadelphia.

As each inning passed and each zero was posted on the scoreboard, the tension grew among those on the field and those in the stands.

"It's not nervous tension," Michael Morse insisted. "It's an adrenaline rush."

The real rush, though, came as the score from Pittsburgh kept being updated. When the Pirates went ahead on Starling Marte's fifth-inning, the crowd in Washington let out a roar and began chanting: "Let's go Pirates!"

And when the final score was at long last posted for all to see, all that tension and nervous energy was released in unison. Fans danced in the aisles. Players hugged each other in the dugout. Relievers in the bullpen bounced around in glee, not worried one bit if one of them might need to enter the game should their teammates rally to tie the game.

In the batter's box to begin the bottom of the ninth, Morse couldn't stop smiling, having to step out for a moment to compose himself before lofting what proved to be a meaningless flyball to center.

When it was officially over, after Danny Espinosa grounded out to second to put the finishing touches on a 2-0 loss, the crowd again roared and players who would normally trudge away in defeat stepped back onto the field to acknowledge the crowd.

After a minute or two, they stormed into the clubhouse, where champagne, beer and plastic barriers covering everything of value awaited. They gathered in the center of the room and started spraying everything in sight.

Over in a corner of the room, managing principal owner Ted Lerner -- maybe the only person in the building alive for Washington's last baseball title in 1933 -- watched with a smile on his face, an "NL East Champions" T-shirt over his dress clothes.

Gio Gonzalez marched over and dumped a beer on the 86-year-old's head.

"Looked forward to it," Lerner said.

In another corner, Bryce Harper, 19, and Drake LaRoche, 9, doused each other with apple cider.

Some of his veteran teammates spent an entire career waiting to enjoy a moment like this. Harper got to experience it before he's even the legal drinking age. And he plans to experience this again many times.

"I want 20," he said. "I can tell you that right now. I want 20."

The celebration moved back onto the field, where several thousand fans remained and were greeted by players and team execs.

In the center of it all was general manager Mike Rizzo, who lost 103 games in his first season at the helm, then watched his team improve by at least 10 games each of the next three seasons to finally reach this pinnacle.

So what if the clinching moment he and everyone else had been anticipating came about in unusual fashion? That didn't make the champagne taste any less sweet, nor diminish what his team accomplished over the last six months.

"This division is tough," Rizzo said. "To me it's as tough, if not the toughest, division in baseball. And we won it."

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NL East: Mets targeting All-Star catcher for deadline trade

NL East: Mets targeting All-Star catcher for deadline trade

Being aggressive at least year's trade deadline paid big dividends for the New York Mets, who saw Yoenis Cespedes help lead them to a World Series berth. They could be looking for something similar this year, as a new report has them targeting one of baseball's best catchers.

The news comes from Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports, who says the Mets have shown interest in Milwaukee Brewers backstop Jonathan Lucroy.

Rosenthal notes that no deal is close, but time is running out before Monday's deadline. The Mets appear intent on adding a bat to their lineup and Lucroy would certainly provide some help.

An All-Star this season and back in 2014, the 30-year-old is batting .300 with 13 homers and 50 RBI through 93 games. He would be an upgrade at catcher for most teams, the Mets included.

We'll see if anything comes of this. The Mets could use some help and getting a player like Lucroy would definitely change their outlook in the NL East.

 

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Turner starts in CF as Nats begin big series at Giants vs. Cueto

Turner starts in CF as Nats begin big series at Giants vs. Cueto

Nationals (59-42) vs. Giants (59-42) at AT&T Park

Now this should be fun. After splitting their two-game series at the first-place Indians, the Nats move on to one of the other teams primed to contend for this year's World Series, as on Thursday they begin a four-game set at the San Francisco Giants.

Not only are the Giants tied with the Nats at 59-42 on the season, they are winners of three of the last six championships. The last time the Nats made the playoffs it was San Francisco that knocked them out. Only so much can be made about a series in July, but this could easily be a postseason preview with the way things are going.

The opener will feature Tanner Roark (9-6, 3.05) pitching opposite NL All-Star Game starter Johnny Cueto (13-2, 2.53). Both are among the best starters in the National League and both are throwing to All-Star catchers in Wilson Ramos and Buster Posey.

Behind Roark will be the usual Nats' lineup with one noticeable change. Trea Turner is in at center field and not Ben Revere, despite the Nats facing a right-handed pitcher in an NL park. With the way Turner's been playing, though, it's not a big surprise.

Starting in center and leading off for the Giants is Denard Span, the former Nationals star who signed away in free agency this past offseason.

First pitch: 10:15 p.m.
TV: MASN2
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats -Tanner Roark vs. Giants - Johnny Cueto

NATS

CF Trea Turner
RF Bryce Harper
2B Daniel Murphy
C Wilson Ramos
LF Jayson Werth
3B Anthony Rendon
1B Ryan Zimmerman
SS Danny Espinosa
RHP Tanner Roark

GIANTS

CF Denard Span
LF Angel Pagan
2B Joe Panik
C Buster Posey
SS Brandon Crawford
1B Brandon Belt
RF Mac Williamson
3B Connor Gillaspie
RHP Johnny Cueto

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Wilson Ramos and José Lobaton may never steal a base. Like, ever

Wilson Ramos and José Lobaton may never steal a base. Like, ever

You know who has as many career stolen bases as Wilson Ramos and José Lobaton? Literally every single person to ever live on planet earth.

George Washington — actually, both George Washingtons, the real president and the racing president — have as many steals as the Nationals' catchers. So does an infant child born one second ago. So do you, reader of this blog.

Now, Ramos and Lobaton aren't in the majors to run on the basepaths. They're in the league to do work behind the dish, prevent others from stealing second or third and produce in the batter's box. But this stat captured by A.J. Ellis, their positional peer on the Dodgers, is pretty nuts nonetheless:

That's a combined 867 games between the two of them where not one thievery was committed. And there definitely had to be tons of chances in that span where the pitcher wasn't paying Ramos or Lobaton any mind, but still, neither of them took the risk to notch their first one.

If one of the backstops ever does make the impossible possible, the game needs to be stopped and a ceremony needs to take place. In the meantime, if someone on the mound ever throws over to keep Ramos or Lobaton close, that player should immediately be ejected.

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