WASHINGTON (AP) — Thanks to strong pitching from Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper’s burst of energy and Adam LaRoche’s slugging, the Washington Nationals won enough from April through September that even a loss on the first day of October could not stop them from clinching the NL East.
Despite being beaten 2-0 by the Philadelphia Phillies on Monday night, the Nationals earned their first division title since moving from Montreal in 2005, because the second-place Atlanta Braves lost 2-1 at the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Washington, in first since May 22, leads Atlanta by three games with two to play in the regular season. The Braves’ loss finished as the top of the ninth inning ended in Washington, and the Nationals celebrated in their dugout with hugs, high-fives and spiked gloves.
When Michael Morse led off the bottom of the ninth, the PA announcer informed the crowd that the home team was the champion, and when the game ended red fireworks lit the night sky with the Capitol building off in the distance beyond left field. The scoreboard declared “NL East Division Champions.”
On Sept. 20, the Nationals assured themselves of no worse than an NL wild-card berth — and guaranteed the nation’s capital of Major League Baseball postseason action for the first time in 79 years.
But even on that night of success, Washington manager Davey Johnson made clear he wasn’t all that interested in merely getting a chance to play in a one-game, in-or-out, wild-card playoff. No, he wanted his team to focus on bigger prizes at hand, including a division championship.
With Washington back home from a six-game road trip and on the verge of a big accomplishment, the first roar of the night from the crowd came a few minutes before the first pitch, when the PA announcer let everyone know that the home team’s “magic number is down to one!”
Ready to roar, the spectators often rose at key moments, whether their team was at the plate or in the field. Fans also reacted with applause and cheers when the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center field showed that Pittsburgh had taken a lead against Atlanta in the fifth inning.
All in all, quite a contrast from the mostly silent, mostly empty ballparks that were home to Nationals teams that lost 100 games apiece in 2008 and 2009. Then again, those worst-in-baseball clubs earned No. 1 overall picks in the amateur draft that turned into Strasburg and Harper.
General manager Mike Rizzo also oversaw a rebuilding of a farm system and two very key additions from outside the organization: Gonzalez, acquired from Oakland for four prospects last offseason; and Jayson Werth, signed away from Philadelphia with a $126 million free-agent deal in December 2010.
Werth was brought to Washington, in part, to show the club how to win, having been a part of the Phillies’ perennial division champions and 2008 World Series winners. And so it was somehow fitting that the Nationals’ title came on a night when they were facing the Phillies, who claimed the five previous NL East banners.
Before the game, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said watching the Nationals take a division title while facing his team “would just make me mad.”
“They’ve had a good season,” said Manuel, whose team already was eliminated from playoff contention. “They broke out early and got on top early and played solid baseball all year long.”
Well, except lately, perhaps.
The Nationals have lost three of four, and they were kept in check Monday by right-hander Kyle Kendrick (11-12), who threw seven scoreless innings and allowed only four hits. Kendrick was masterful for stretches — he got 12 of 13 outs on grounders during one stretch — and received some help, too. He caught Werth (in the fifth) and Morse (sixth) looking at strike three to end innings with a runner on third base.
Washington’s starter was John Lannan (4-1), who was brought up from Triple-A Syracuse to join the rotation after Strasburg was shut down early, a year after returning from reconstructive surgery on his right elbow.
The stadium was loud as can be after Lannan got the game’s second batter, John Mayberry Jr., to ground into a 1-6-3 double play, and fans rose to salute the lefty after the first half-inning ended.
But in the second, Lannan — with curly brown hair sticking out of his cap and a scruffy beard — walked Carlos Ruiz on four pitches and gave up a single to Domonic Brown. That set the stage for Darin Ruf’s big hit, a triple that barely eluded Harper’s outstretched glove in center and made it 2-0.
Harper slammed into the padded green wall, spun around and banged against the chain-link fence in front of the visiting bullpen. He bent over for a moment, as if hurt, but stayed in the game.
Lannan kept living dangerously, but got double plays in the third and fourth. The latter let Lannan get out of a bases-loaded jam, when LaRoche snagged a chopper to first, stepped on the bag, then threw home. Lannan went five innings, giving up two runs and six hits while walking three.
In the fifth, Kendrick was charged with an error for a bad pickoff attempt that bounced behind the bag at first base, allowing Kurt Suzuki to scramble all the way to third with Werth up. But a called strike three drew boos from the stands and led Werth to chuck his bat and helmet.
In the sixth, Harper led off with a double to the warning track in deep center, clapping his hands vigorously while standing on the bag. He took third on a popup to shallow right, barely beating the throw, then slapping palms with third base coach Bo Porter (who’s already been announced as the new manager of the Houston Astros).
Cleanup hitter LaRoche, who leads the Nationals with 32 homers and 99 RBIs, popped out on the first pitch of his at-bat. That left it to Morse — he of the fake-swing grand slam the other night — but he struck out.
The Nationals had two runners on with one out in the eighth against reliever Justin De Fratus, but center fielder Mayberry raced in to make a diving catch of Ryan Zimmerman’s sinking liner. Left-hander Jeremy Horst then entered to face LaRoche, who struck out.
But for the Nationals, it turned out not to matter.
NOTES: Nationals reliever Craig Stammen struck out all six batters he faced in the sixth and seventh. … Harper’s No. 34 Nationals uniform ranks fourth among jersey sales this season. MLB and the players’ union released the list of most popular jerseys Monday. Harper trails No. 1 Derek Jeter of the Yankees, No. 2 Josh Hamilton of the Rangers, and No. 3 Ichiro Suzuki of the Yankees. … SS Jimmy Rollins was out of Philadelphia’s starting lineup because of an injured right calf. He only had missed three games in 2012 before Monday. Rollins is hitting .250 with 23 homers, 68 RBIs and 30 steals in 2012. … Manuel wouldn’t say who will pitch for Philadelphia on Tuesday, other than to confirm he will use a combination of relievers. … Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee for President in 2008, was shown on a scoreboard video, giving a “pep talk” to the Teddy mascot about never having won a Presidents’ Race at Nationals Park.
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