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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, without their big guns, fall to Mets

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Nationals, without their big guns, fall to Mets

NEW YORK -- Travis d'Arnaud hit two home runs and the New York Mets ended a three-game skid, rallying past a watered-down lineup of Washington Nationals 7-6 on Friday night.

Washington manager Dusty Baker said he needed to "give my big boys much needed rest" with the playoffs nearing, and not a single regular started for the NL East champions. Star Daniel Murphy pinch hit in the eighth and flied out.

MORE NATS: RATHER HAVE THE CUBS, BREWERS, OR CARDINALS IN NLDS?

The Nationals begin the Division Series in exactly two weeks. If the current standings hold, they would host the World Series champion Chicago Cubs to open the best-of-five matchup.

Adam Lind hit a three-run homer for Washington. It was the Nationals' 203rd home run this season, matching the franchise record dating to 1969 when they were the Montreal Expos.

Howie Kendrick had an RBI double and prized prospect Victor Robles lined a two-run triple in the fifth that put Washington ahead 6-1.

Nationals reliever Shawn Kelley exited in the eighth inning because of an apparent injury. He' has struggled this season and missed more than two months because of back problems.

Nori Aoki had three hits for the Mets, including a go-ahead double in the sixth inning off Joe Blanton (2-4).

Chasen Bradford (2-0) pitched a scoreless inning for the win.

Jeurys Familia, the Mets' third pitcher in the ninth inning, came on to strike out Robles with runners on first and third for his fourth save -- his first since May 5. Familia, who missed three months after surgery to repair a blood clot, entered as part of a double switch, with Kevin Plawecki taking over at catcher for d'Arnaud.

D'Arnaud hit a solo homer in the second and connected for a tying, three-run drive in the fifth that finished starter Edwin Jackson. That gave d'Arnaud a career-best 15 homers and marked his second multihomer game, the other coming in April against Washington.

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Mets starter Robert Gsellman allowed six runs in five innings. He moved up a day to pitch in place of ace Jacob deGrom, who was moved back in the rotation until Sunday because of a stomach illness this week.

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Cubs, Brewers, or Cardinals: potential postseason opponents for the Washington Nationals

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USA Today Sports

Cubs, Brewers, or Cardinals: potential postseason opponents for the Washington Nationals

The regular season is winding down and there is no drama in the nation’s capital.

With a stranglehold on the National League East for the entire season, the Washington Nationals were the first team in baseball to earn a playoff spot and their division. Since June, the Nationals’ lead has been hovering around 20 games. Their record against the division is 44-26 with three NL East series forthcoming.

Beyond that, positioning has not been a factor in the National League either. It was a near forgone conclusion that the Nationals were going to earn the No. 2 seed in the NL side of the postseason. There was a slight chance last week that Washington could pass the Los Angeles Dodgers with them losing 16 of 17 games. Alas, the Dodgers took two out of three in their series, solidifying their No. 1 seed hopes.

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Dusty Baker then basically threw in the towel for that race. He spread out his rotation to six pitchers and gave his players consistent rest. Focusing on the postseason more than the playoff race, he does not appear to care about their positioning.

With that, the Nationals are all but guaranteed to finish second behind the Dodgers. Floating between four and six games back, there is no sense of urgency.

There is no worry about the team in third either. The Chicago Cubs, as of September 22, sit seven games behind the Nationals and are in the thick of a Divisional race.

Either way, even if the Nationals were to collapse and the winner of the National League Central was to rocket up to second, the Nationals will play against whoever wins the division in the No. 2 vs. No. 3 match-up.

The Central has actually been the Nationals Achilles heel this year. They finished with a 17-13 record vs. NL Central teams. It is not the whole division the Nationals have to worry about though, just the one that comes out.

Entering Friday’s action the Cubs are well on their way to winning the division, according to fangraphs.com. Below are the current odds to win the division:

Chicago Cubs                     97.8%
Milwaukee Brewers          0.9%
St. Louis Cardinals            1.3%

This is slightly misleading though, because the Central could completely flip before the postseason. The lead is 4.5 over the Milwaukee Brewers and 5.0 over the St. Louis Cardinals. However of their final 10 games, three are against the Brewers, four against the Cardinals, all seven on the road.

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In the five-game NLDS the Nationals will face one of these teams. Even if it is the defending World Series Champions, you have to like the Nationals’ odds.

CHICAGO CUBS PREVIEW

Current record: 85-67
2017 Record vs. Washington: 2-4
Last head-to-head postseason series: Never
Starting pitchers: Jon Lester (11-8), Jake Arrieta (14-9), John Lackey (11-11), Kyle Hendricks (7-5), Jose Quintana (6-3)
Top position players: Kris Bryant (.292 BA, 28 HRs, 69 RBIs), Anthony Rizzo (.278 BA, 32 HRs, 107 RBIs)

If these two teams were to meet up, it would be easily the best starting pitching match-up in the National League. Likely the Cubs would only go to four guys, maybe three if they get desperate. With Jake Arrieta on the mind, that would be a dicey move to start the postseason. They have not played to the level that the 2016 did a year ago, but a majority of the position players are still in place and can still put together a run.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS PREVIEW

Current record: 81-72
2017 Record vs. Washington: 3-4
Last head-to-head postseason series: Never
Starting pitchers: Zach Davies (17-9), Chase Anderson (11-3), Brandon Woodruff (2-2), Brent Suter (3-2)
Top position players: Domingo Santana (.281 BA, 28 HRs, 80 RBIs), Travis Shaw (.274 BA, 30 HRs, 96 RBIs)

As one of the hottest teams in the first half of the season, the Brewers are only relying on their early success. Their team has quickly cooled off and their number two starter Jimmy Nelson is out the remainder of the season. The rest of the roster is shaky at best as they are trying to stay relevant in the postseason chase. If the Nationals are fully prepared for the playoffs there should be no worries if Milwaukee represents the Central.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS PREVIEW

Current record: 80-72
2017 Record vs. Washington: 3-3
Last head-to-head postseason series: 2012; Cardinals won 3-2 in NLDS
Starting pitchers: Adam Wainwright (12-5), Carlos Martinez (12-11), Lance Lynn (11-7), Michael Wacha (12-8), Luke Weaver (7-1),
Top position players: Yadier Molina (.276 BA, 18 HRs, 82 RBIs), Tommy Pham (.311 BA, 21 HRs, 168 RBIs)

With both the Brewers and Cubs you know what you are getting, with the Cardinals it could be anything. The starting pitchers have a history of success, just not in 2017. Also how Wainwright comes back will be a huge factor in how the Central race will play out and how their odds in the postseason increase. With a mix of a young and aging line-up, the Cardinals can both win with the long ball and piece runs together by playing small ball. St. Louis is easily the most interesting team of the three and could be the scariest if the Wainwright comes back at 100%.

Both the Brewers and the Cardinals have to rely on each other to win the NL Central. They cannot do it on their individual series's alone.