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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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Nationals vs. Braves Preview: Scherzer seeks redemption

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Nationals vs. Braves Preview: Scherzer seeks redemption

ATLANTA -- In his last start, only his second in the major leagues, Atlanta Braves rookie Luiz Gohara outpitched Washington Nationals ace and Cy Young contender Max Scherzer.

On Tuesday, he gets to try it again.

Gohara (1-1, 6.30 ERA) is queued up for a rematch with Scherzer (14-6, 2.59) and the Nationals in the opener of a three-game series at SunTrust Park.

Washington (90-59) has clinched the National League East title for the fourth time in six years. Atlanta (67-81) was mathematically eliminated from playoff consideration after its Sunday loss to the New York Mets. The two teams have split 16 games this season, with the Braves winning two of three last week in Washington.

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Gohara showed why he is in contention to join the Atlanta rotation on a full-time basis in 2018. The big left-hander from Brazil, who went from Class A to the majors in one season, beat the Nationals 8-2 on Wednesday. He allowed two runs (one earned) on six hits in six innings, striking out six. He didn't issue a walk.

In that start, Gohara located his four-seam fastball -- something he couldn't do in his major league debut against Texas.

"The kid gets locked in and really competes," Atlanta manager Brian Snitker said. "And that's what I heard about him from guys that played with him, the guys that have had him, been around him. They say once he gets out there, he's trying to beat you. That's legit stuff right there, too."

Scherzer endured his worst start of the season against the Braves last week. He gave up a season-high seven runs on seven hits and a season-high six walks in six innings. He threw 116 pitches, part of the plan to stretch him out for the postseason.

"For the first 100 pitches, I felt like I was executing pitches the way I wanted to," Scherzer said. "Then, after pitch 100, that's when the wheels fell off and I was searching for everything. Sometimes that happens. I don't think anything's broken. My arm feels fine. There's nothing wrong here. This is why I needed to pitch that deep into the game, so I can shake off some of that rust."

The big hiccup for Scherzer came when he allowed a grand slam to Braves left fielder Matt Kemp. However, on Tuesday, he isn't likely to face Kemp, who has missed the past two games after leaving the Friday contest with a strained hamstring.

In 16 career appearances, 14 starts, against Atlanta, Scherzer is 6-5 with a 4.04 ERA. In 2017, he has made four starts against the Braves, going 1-2 with a 4.91. He was 4-0 against Atlanta a year ago.

The hottest batter for the Braves has been center fielder Ender Inciarte, who is 10 hits shy of becoming only the seventh player in Atlanta franchise history to reach 200. The last Brave to get 200 hits was Marquis Grissom, who had 207 in 1996.

Washington's Ryan Zimmerman is on the verge of a 30-homer/30-double season. Last week, he joined Adam Dunn as the only Nationals player to post two 30-homer seasons with the club.

 

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MLB Postseason 2017 Bracket Projection

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USA Today Sports

MLB Postseason 2017 Bracket Projection

Two weeks remain in the regular season for the Washington Nationals, Baltimore Orioles, and the rest of Major League Baseball.

Already, the Nationals have clinched a spot in the MLB postseason, while the Orioles are still clinging to an outside chance of making it through to one of the two Wild Card spots. If Baltimore were to make the surprise climb they would likely be the third team from the AL East to make the MLB postseason.

NATIONAL LEAGUE:

Washington is joined by the Los Angeles Dodgers as the only two teams to have claimed a playoff berth in the National League. This past weekend the Dodgers took two out of three in a pivotal series from the Nationals to hold on to the top seed. The lead is now up to 6 games for Los Angeles after it was down to only 3.5 games in the middle of the week.

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The Dodgers have not clinched their division yet but with their turnaround in Washington this past weekend it is only a matter of time. Leading the Arizona Diamondbacks by 9.5 games, the Dodgers magic number is only four. With 96 wins, Los Angeles also would be the team to hold home-field advantage throughout the postseason, including the World Series.

Only the National League Central Division has an interesting battle as the year winds down, but the Chicago Cubs maintain a four game edge over the Milwaukee Brewers. Right behind the Brewers are the St. Louis Cardinals, two games back. There is brief two-game series for the Cubs in Tampa Bay before back-to-back road series against the Brewers than the Cardinals. Within a week, this division could be flipped over. It is a near lock that the division winner will be the No. 3 seed.

Arizona is likely to clinch one of the Wild Card berths this week. Colorado currently holds the second spot, and they're 2.5 up on the Brewers.

If the season were to end today, here is how the National League bracket would look:

Wild Card Round (Winner-take-all):

No. 5 Colorado Rockies (82-68) at No. 4 Arizona Diamondbacks (87-63)

National League Divisional Series (Best-of-5):

No. 1 Los Angeles Dodgers (96-53) vs. Wild Card Round Winner
No. 2 Washington Nationals (90-59) vs. No. 3 Chicago Cubs (83-66)

Wild Card Race:

Arizona Diamondbacks:  +5.0
Colorado Rockies:              ---
Milwaukee Brewers:        -2.5
St. Louis Cardinals:          -4.5
Miami Marlins:                -12.5

AMERICAN LEAGUE

Thanks to their improbable 22-game winning streak, the Cleveland Indians now sit atop the American League. They hold a slight 1.5 game lead over the Houston Astros for the top seed and home-field advantage in the AL. Both of these teams have already handily clinched their divisions holding on to the No. 1 and 2 seeds.

The incredible run by Cleveland has also put them 3.5 games behind the Dodgers for home-field throughout the entire postseason.

As it does seemingly every year, the American League East will come down to the wire. The New York Yankees trail the Boston Red Sox by only three games with their season series already wrapped up. Of the Yankees final 13 games though, 10 are at home where they are 43-28 on the season. Boston only has seven at home and six on the road. New York also faces an easier stretch playing opponents with a combined .487 win percentage compared to Boston’s .501.

Unlike the National League Wild Card, which is essentially down to four teams, the American League is wide open. Ten teams are mathematically still alive including the Oakland Athletics who are 17 games under .500. New York or Boston will likely take the top Wild Card slot with the Minnesota Twins currently holding down second. The Los Angeles Angels (2.0 games back), Seattle Mariners (4.5 games back), and the Kansas City Royals (5.0 games back) are giving chase.

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It will be tough for the Twins to hold on to the final spot with 10 of their final 13 games being on the road. First up for them is a three-game series in the Bronx. The Red Sox and Orioles also start a three-game series in Baltimore with much on the line for both teams. 

If the season were to end today, here is how the American League bracket would look:

Wild Card Round (Winner-take-all):

No. 5 Minnesota Twins (78-71) at No. 4 New York Yankees (82-67)

American League Divisional Series (Best-of-5):

No. 1 Cleveland Indians (93-57) vs. Wild Card Round Winner
No. 2 Houston Astros (91-58) vs. No. 3 Boston Red Sox (85-64)

Wild Card Race:

New York Yankees:     +4.0
Minnesota Twins:          ---
Los Angeles Angels:     -2.0
Seattle Mariners:         -4.5
Kansas City Royals:      -5.0
Texas Rangers:             -5.0
Baltimore Orioles:       -5.5
Tampa Bay Rays:          -5.5
Toronto Blue Jays:       -8.5
Oakland Athletics:      -12.0

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