WASHINGTON -- Those 90 minutes felt like an eternity as the Nationals sat and waited, their celebration on hold. They had already defeated the Phillies, 3-2, on Sunday afternoon at Nationals Park, and only needed a Braves victory over the Marlins to win the National League East and become the first team to secure a postseason berth.
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As the Nats watched the game in Atlanta go into extra innings, manager Dusty Baker nearly nodded off in his office. Jayson Werth changed into street clothes, prepared to leave if the Marlins prevailed. Giovany Gonzalez even played the Braves' "tomahawk chop" music as players gathered around the clubhouse to watch. A group of fans remained in the lower bowl of Nationals Park, watching the action in Atlanta on the scoreboard. Then, as Lane Adams hit a walk-off homer in the 11th to secure a win for the Braves, cheers erupted from the stands and in the clubhouse.
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The players returned to the field to share the moment with the fans and their family members, tossing hats and shirts into the stands to reward those who stayed. When the Nationals made their way back to the clubhouse, the celebration was officially on.
"This never gets old," first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "Adults don't get to spray champagne and do stupid stuff in public. This is the only place you can do it.
"Any time a season ends like this, it makes everything worth it."
This is the fourth time in six seasons that the Nationals have won the NL East and the first time they have secured back-to-back crowns.
For months this moment has been a bit of a fait accompli, a matter of "when," not "if," as the Nationals dominated the division. They led virtually the entire way, spending 157 days in first place -- every day since April 12 -- and never trailed by more than a game. They currently lead the division by 20 games.
Yes, the Nationals have higher aspirations to ensure that this celebration is not their last, but that did not take away from the feeling of this accomplishment.
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"It is not easy to win baseball games at the Major League level. It is not easy to win division championships," general manager and president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo said. "To look at the amount of games that we've won, the amount of days we've been in first place, the amount of divisions that we've won, it's really mind-boggling to think about."
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The Nationals won the division despite a rash of injuries to some of their most important players. Their entire Opening Day starting outfield has spent time on the disabled list; Jayson Werth has missed nearly three months with a broken foot, Adam Eaton (ACL) was lost for the season and Bryce Harper (hyperextended knee) is out indefinitely. Their top two starting pitchers -- Max Scherzer and Sunday winner Stephen Strasburg -- spent time on the DL, and right-hander Joe Ross needed Tommy John surgery. Shortstop Trea Turner missed two months.
Washington also needed to overhaul its bullpen midseason after a first half in which its relievers posted a 5.23 ERA through July 17, the worst in the Majors. After acquiring Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle from the A's and Brandon Kintzler from the Twins, the bullpen has a 3.55 ERA.
Now the Nationals look poised for a deep postseason run. They have four starting pitchers on a roll, the rotation anchored by a dominant Scherzer and Strasburg. The bullpen is settled. The lineup is getting healthier, although the Nats still need Harper to return.
The Nationals are starting to peak and appear to be on an upward trajectory.
"This is the year that I feel like the organization took all the steps to ensure we had all the weapons that we need in October," Werth said. "As far as weapons go, we've never been this deep with this many weapons going into October."