The playoffs are the payoff for the Nationals

The playoffs are the payoff for the Nationals
September 21, 2012, 5:27 am
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Fireworks shot off from the roof at Nationals Park at 10:02 p.m. Thursday evening. Within seconds, players were handed commemorative T-shirts and caps. A crowd of 30,359 roared with approval as everyone in uniform retreated down the dugout steps and into the home clubhouse.

There they were greeted and congratulated by 86-year-old Ted Lerner -- perhaps the only one in the building who was around the last time something like this occurred in this town -- and other members of ownership, and collectively they raised flutes of champagne and toasted their success after a 4-1 victory over the Dodgers clinched Washington's first playoff berth since 1933.

Someone asked Davey Johnson to say a few words, so the 69-year-old manager did. He conveyed, as he always does, exactly how he felt.

"What's this?" Johnson grumbled. "We ain't done yet."

No, the Nationals believe there are still more hurdles to cross in 2012, first and foremost winning the NL East division -- the magic number for that now stands at 8 -- then making a deep run through the postseason.

So there wasn't all that much celebration taking place on this night among those in uniform, even if technically they had accomplished something quite significant.

"This pretty much means that if we lose every game from here on out, we get to play one more game," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "We're looking way bigger picture than that."

Nationals players and coaches may not have put much stock in win No. 91 out of 149, but they didn't stop fans and some team officials from rejoicing in a moment they had never experienced before.

"I don't want to downplay it, because it's a huge accomplishment for the organization," said Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals' first draft pick after arriving in town in 2005. "But I think the next one is the one where we'll do a little more celebrating."

That next one, should it occur, will most likely take place in another city, in another team's ballpark. Mathematically, the Nationals cannot clinch the division before the current homestand ends Monday. There's a much greater chance they will do it next week in either Philadelphia (they'd need to lead the Braves by at least seven games with six to play) or St. Louis (they'd need to lead by at least four games with three to play).

By the time the Nationals return home for the final regular-season series of the year against the Phillies, they certainly hope they've already wrapped things up and are making plans for the upcoming NL Division Series.

So this was an opportunity for Washington's fans to rejoice and salute their hometown ballclub in the flesh, and a chance to reflect on all the bad baseball they had watched over the years. Or all the years when there was no baseball at all to watch.

"They stuck with us the whole time, too," Zimmerman said. "I've met fans and seen people here for years when we would lose 100 games a year. For them to have a team, and for this city to have a baseball team to root for, is pretty special."

After narrowly missing an opportunity to clinch late Wednesday night after a dramatic rally from six runs down, Thursday's actual clinching victory was fairly matter-of-fact.

Ross Detwiler tossed six innings of one-run ball. The Nationals scored four early runs off Chris Capuano, with Zimmerman and Danny Espinosa delivering RBI doubles. And then the bullpen shut the door on any possibility of a Los Angeles comeback, with Christian Garcia, Ryan Mattheus and Drew Storen each tossing a scoreless inning to preserve the lead.

It wasn't until Storen got two strikes on Hanley Ramirez, the final batter of the game, that everyone seemed to begin to sense what was at stake. And when Storen blew a slider past Ramirez for his third consecutive strikeout in a perfect inning of relief, he realized what had just happened.

"I didn't even think about it until I saw it on the scoreboard afterwards," he said. "I was too concerned with the three guys coming up. I was just having fun. The crowd was real into it. If you're not out there having fun in that situation, then you shouldn't be out there."

The Nationals, though, were careful not to have too much fun. If not for the fireworks and the T-shirts and the scoreboard declaring "Nats Clinch," it was difficult to distinguish this win from any of the previous 90.

"I think there was some talk about not celebrating at all," said Jayson Werth, who was a part of plenty of clinchers in Philadelphia. "And I kind of talked them out of that. So that was good. Any time you get to the postseason, it's a huge accomplishment.

"There's a lot of teams that won't be playing in the postseason, and we should relish this moment. The organization and the town of Washington, D.C. should be proud."