- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 25, 2011

As the ball cracked off Michael Morse’s bat and began its flight into the right field seats, the crowd at Nationals Park started to erupt. The cheering didn’t stop as he rounded the bases and received the now-traditional flying elbows to the helmet from several of his teammates, and they only got louder as their 29-homer slugger disappeared into the dugout.

The cheers would not die until Morse, his face smeared in eye black, reappeared for the first curtain call of his career. On a sun-splashed September afternoon, as the Washington Nationals put the finishing touches on a 3-0 victory over the Atlanta Braves in their home finale, they listened to their fans.

In the dugout, outfielder Jayson Werth turned to Morse and smiled.

“This is how it’s going to be,” Werth told his teammate. “This is what our goal is, to be in this kind of atmosphere. They’re looking at a good team out there and cheering us on every day.”

If the Nationals were attempting to send their fans into the winter with more optimism than they’ve had in any of the six previous off-seasons, they couldn’t have scripted Sunday afternoon any better.

They got an impressive performance out of lefty starter Ross Detwiler, who escaped two jams and held the Braves to four hits through six scoreless innings. They also watched their bullpen put on one of the most dominant displays of the season from Henry Rodriguez to Tyler Clippard to Drew Storen as they combined for three shutout frames and six strikeouts.

“There’s a growing up here,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. “There’s a lot of pride on this ball club and there’s a lot of guys that really are not satisfied with this year. You could probably ask everybody in that room and they’d probably tell you they wished the season would have started tomorrow, again.”

As the Nationals moved a little closer toward dashing the Braves‘ playoff hopes with each out, the 37,638 at Nationals Park seemed to get louder still. In St. Louis, where the Cardinals were busy beating the Chicago Cubs to pull within one game of Atlanta in the National League wild-card race, Morse’s home run and Storen’s 42nd save were shown on the scoreboard. The Nationals got a standing ovation from 41,469 more, 800 miles away.

“Even though we weren’t in the race, I could sense the feeling that we were,” said Johnson, who helped lead the team to a record 44 wins inside its home ballpark. “We played like we were fighting for a playoff spot. That’s a great sign.”

In reality, all the Nationals have at this point in the season are great signs, but if they’re keeping score with those, they’d possibly be leading the major leagues. Add rookie catcher Wilson Ramos, whose 15th home run put the Nationals ahead early, to Morse and the aforementioned pitchers as the main contributors to Sunday’s win and their average age is 24. The average age of the entire starting lineup was only 26.

The signs for the future are getting more difficult to ignore.

“I don’t want to say there was no talent when I first got here, but it’s definitely a lot more now,” said Detwiler, the Nationals‘ first-round pick in 2007. “People are just getting better at every level.”

“It’s a process,” Clippard said. “Three years ago, we’re kind of in shambles, and we’re tightening up the screws right now. Everyone can see that. It’s exciting for us.”

The Nationals are not a playoff team. They’re not setting records with their win totals or rearranging their plans for October, but with a 15-8 mark in September, they are owners of the third best record in the NL since Sept. 1. They’re securely in third place in the NL East and with a sweep of the Florida Marlins to close out the season, the Nationals will secure the first winning record in their seven-year history.

“That’s what you want,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “You want to be playing your best baseball at the end of the season. In a perfect world, we’re getting ready to go to the playoffs, and look how we’re doing right now. I don’t see any indication why that would change any time in the future.”

“We’re making the best of what we’ve got right now and we’re going to finish the season strong. We will be ready for next year when it does come. … I want to play in October. I want to play for a championship.”

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