The Washington Times - October 2, 2012, 10:21AM

He wasn’t off to the side or watching from a nearby perch. Stephen Strasburg stood on the middle of the revelry and debauchery in the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse Monday night. He strapped on his goggles and picked up his beers. He sprayed champagne and let out the screams of 160 games worth of work all made worth it in one exhilarating moment.

“You know,” Strasburg said, beer and champagne dripping off of him, “the only time I did this was when I was rehabbing in Harrisburg last year when they clinched.

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“This is a little different.”

Strasburg hasn’t thrown a pitch for the Nationals in 25 days but his contributions to what they accomplished Monday night weren’t the least bit overlooked by those who’ve watched him go through this season — as a player and a bystander.

“Stras was definitely a key to our success,” said left-hander Gio Gonzalez, who will be the Nationals’ likely No. 1 starter in the National League Division Series. “He was a 15-game winner, an All-Star, a guy who came back from Tommy John to do what he did. That guy deserves all the credit in the world and he deserves all the attention and all the love. If we’re celebrating he deserves to be there with us.

“You deserve to get champagne, in fact you deserve five bottles of Dom Perignon.”

In the dugout as the Nationals were in the process of losing to the Phillies, the Nationals’ starting rotation gathered together near the far end, as they do every game they’re not pitching. They were the arms the 2012 NL East champions had built their success on. They were the ones who helped them surge to the best record in the major leagues for most of the season and allow for some of their hiccups down the stretch.

They watched the out-of-town scoreboard like hawks.

“You kidding me?” Gonzalez said. “I’m surprised we still have nails right now.”

“It’s hard not to,” Strasburg said. “I wanted to go out there and show support for Drew (Storen) and everything, but you know what, I really don’t remember the pitches he threw or how he got the outs. I was just locked into the scoreboard.”

Jordan Zimmermann and Gonzalez heard some fans behind the dugout say that the Pirates game had ended before they saw the final score. Then they felt the release that comes with eight months of hard work.

“It’s been a long hectic year and the starters had a great year,” Zimmermann said. “We’re always pulling for each other. (John) Lannan did a great job in the game tonight. I’m just happy we got this out of the way and we can go from here.”

Strasburg, of course, will not be a part of that “going from here” as the Nationals continue to move forward with their ace shut down for the season. He will remain with the team, of course, as he has throughout, and be a large part of their support in the dugout. 

“This is a dream come true,” Strasburg said, knowing that this is the final hurdle before he can be the guy at the top of the rotation for the Nationals for full seasons for years to come. “I’m excited for everyone here and I’m happy that all the hard work has paid off. We’re ready to go. It’s going to be a fun postseason.”

“That guy knows he’s the best, I know he’s the best, the team knows he’s the best,” Gonzalez said. “He’s one of those guys that I know that if he had the opportunity to pitch for us now he’ll go out there and get us a ‘W’. When the fans are wearing your jersey even when your’e not playing, that let’s you know the kind of person you are to this stadium and what you mean to this organization. I’m honored to be a part of this rotation, honored to be a part of the whole chemistry right now.”

Gonzalez was expected to start Tuesday, despite heavy rain that pounded the area, to get himself lined up to pitch a possible Game 1 on Sunday (if the Nationals finish with the best record in the National League) — another reason why Monday night’s clinching was so important.

“It’s definitely good knowing what’s ahead of us,” Zimmermann said. “We didn’t really know what to expect. If we don’t win any ballgames (and they didn’t lose) we’ve got to play a playoff game against the Braves, so it’s definitely good to get in and we can set the rotation and get things figured out.”