ATLANTA — Before the Washington Nationals leave the confines of the visitors’ clubhouse at Turner Field for the final time this weekend, they may well have something to celebrate. The first playoff berth for a team that’s spent every year before this one wondering what a winning season would look like is near.
It could happen as early as Sunday, after the Nationals play the Braves on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball.
Don’t expect the moment to come with much fanfare.
“It’s not a big moment,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson said Friday before the Nationals dropped the first game of this three-game series. “It’s a nice moment but it’s not a big moment.”
The Nationals are primed to secure the first playoff baseball in Washington since 1933 but their goals this season are larger. Johnson has stressed all season that he has no interest in winning the wild card — that earning the right to play in a one-game playoff does nothing for him.
So there will likely be no champagne celebration. There might be some generic t-shirts floating around that confirm the Nationals as 2012 postseason participants.
But with a 7 1/2-game lead and their magic number to clinch the National League East sitting firmly at 11 (and could possibly be as low as seven if the Nationals win the next two games of this series) they’re reserving themselves for when that moment, the moment they seal the divisional crown, to let loose.
“The additional wild card, to me, just put more burden on the manager because nobody wants that one,” Johnson said. “Clinching a one-game playoff doesn’t have any appeal to me.”
Here are the logistics of when it could happen, though: The Nationals’ magic number to clinch that playoff spot which, again, only guarantees them that they’ll at least play in that wild card game, is four.
The Nationals could shave two off it with wins over the Braves, and two more could come off it with two losses by the Dodgers to the Cardinals. That means if the Cardinals beat the Dodgers Saturday night, then again in their Sunday afternoon game (which will start 3 p.m. on the east coast) and the Nationals do not fall to the Braves again this series, they’ll leave Atlanta knowing they’ll be in the playoffs one way or the other.
The other number is more important to them, though, and that’s the one they can make even more headway with by winning the series against the Braves. Edwin Jackson takes the mound tonight, Gio Gonzalez tomorrow. And they know they’re getting close.
“You play all season to build up that (7 1/2-game) lead, and we’re right in the thick of it right now,” right fielder Jayson Werth said Friday night. “We’ve got a nice little cushion, but we got all playoff teams the rest of the way. We’re going to be tested, but I think we’re ready for that test. I really do. I think probably the last two weeks you can really tell a difference in this team. We’re a championship-caliber ball club.”