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Nats clinch NL East Division title

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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Anthony Rendon homers in third straight game, but Nationals fall to Mariners in series finale

Anthony Rendon homers in third straight game, but Nationals fall to Mariners in series finale

WASHINGTON -- Nelson Cruz greeted reliever Jacob Turner with a go-ahead, three-run homer in the sixth inning, and the Seattle Mariners beat the Washington Nationals 4-2 Thursday to stop a five-game losing streak.

Gio Gonzalez took a 2-0 lead into the sixth, when Jean Segura singled leading off and Guillermo Heredia took a called third strike. That prompted Seattle manager Scott Servais to complain from the dugout, which led to his ejection by plate umpire Adam Hamari.

Robinson Cano singled, and Washington manager Dusty Baker brought in Turner (2-3), despite Cruz having just one hit in 15 at-bats against Gonzalez. Cruz drove a belt-high slider over the fence in left-center for his 12th homer this season and a 3-2 lead. Cruz leads the AL with 40 RBIs.

Cano added an RBI single off Turner in the seventh. Seattle scored multiple runs for the first time since May 18.

Ariel Miranda (4-2) allowed two runs, three hits and three walks in five innings. Edwin Diaz, Seattle's sixth pitcher, threw a one-hit ninth that completed a six-hitter. Diaz got his first save since May 9 and has eight in 10 chances overall.

Gonzalez gave up two runs, three hits and four walks in 5 1/3 innings, striking out eight.

Washington's Anthony Rendon homered in the fifth, his ninth this season and fourth in the three-game series. Jayson Werth added an RBI single later in the inning.

FAMILY FIRST

Baker will be leaving the Nationals for their weekend series against San Diego Padres to attend his son Darren's high school graduation in Northern California and will rejoin the team Monday in San Francisco.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Mariners: LHP James Paxton (forearm strain) could return to the rotation in the first or second game of a homestand that starts Wednesday, Servais said. ... 1B Danny Valencia was in the lineup for a second straight day after sitting out three games with a wrist injury.

Nationals: Baker may continue to use an eight-man bullpen. Baker said the decision depends the progress of INF Stephen Drew's rehabilitation from a hamstring strain. Drew is at extended spring training.

UP NEXT

Mariners: RHP Yovani Gallardo is 2-2 with a 5.28 ERA against Boston, where Seattle begins a three-game set on Friday.

Nationals: RHP Max Scherzer (4-3, 3.02) has allowed two runs or fewer in his last three starts against San Diego, which opens a three-game series in Washington on Friday.

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Nats beat Mariners behind Joe Ross' career day in return from minors

Nats beat Mariners behind Joe Ross' career day in return from minors

WASHINGTON -- Anthony Rendon homered twice and drove in five runs, Joe Ross returned from the minors to allow one run over a career high-tying eight innings, and the Washington Nationals routed the Seattle Mariners 10-1 on Tuesday night.

Bryce Harper added his 14th homer and Jayson Werth hit his seventh off Chris Bergman (1-2), who allowed all of the Nationals' runs and 14 of their 15 hits.

Rendon doubled before his second homer -- and seventh of the season -- completed an eight-run fourth inning. Ryan Zimmerman also had three hits.

Mike Zunino homered off Ross (2-0) in his return from his own minor league stint. Robinson Cano was hitless in his first game back from the disabled list following a thigh injury as Seattle dropped its fourth straight.

Ross showed no signs of the late April struggles that ended with a demotion to Triple-A Syracuse. He yielded five hits and a walk while striking out six, and retired 12 straight batters after a leadoff single to begin the game.

By the time Seattle finally put multiple runners aboard, Washington had already opened a 10-0 lead.

Rendon's second-inning shot around the left field foul pole made it 2-0.

Then Werth, Harper and Rendon all connected in the fourth, helping the Nationals score seven of their eight runs in the inning with two outs.

MORE NATIONALS: WATCH: Werth, Harper go back-to-back, Rendon hits 2 HRs in Nationals win