MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — They said for days that it didn't mean anything.
"If you're not first, you're last," shortstop Ian Desmond said, matter-of-factly, less than a week ago inside the visitors clubhouse in Philadelphia.
But they could talk all they wanted about the lack of significance. The fact of the matter was, Nationals manager Davey Johnson was watching the out-of-town scoreboard at Sun Life Stadium all night. When the New York Mets loss to the Cincinnati Reds went final, sealing a third-place finish in the National League East for the Nationals, Johnson knew.
"I had my lineup out there, didn't I?" Johnson said after the Nationals' 6-4 ninth-inning comeback victory over the Florida Marlins.
"It wasn't a goal to end up in third place. We haven't accomplished anything. You don't accomplish anything until you're fighting for a pennant. But we've made a lot of strides going in that direction."
Trailing by a run and down to their last out, the Nationals kept their improbable September run and hope for a winning season alive with the powerful stroke of the one man having the Nationals' most improbable season. Michael Morse, that is, and his 30th home run.
Morse, who took a curtain call on Sunday from the home crowd after his 29th homer, fretted to Johnson before the game that his brilliant offensive season was about to dwindle. He didn't want his average to dip below .300. His average was at .304 entering the game and an 0-for-4 to begin the game dropped him to .301. But he stepped to the plate with Laynce Nix and Ian Desmond on base and the game on the line — and RBI No.'s 92, 93 and 94 there to be had.
So he waited on Edward Mujica's changeup. Stay on the fastball, he told himself, as he watched a ball go by and fouled off another. But an offspeed pitch came next and as it sailed into left field, Morse knew No. 30 was in the bag so quickly he skipped to his right and raised his right arm in the air in triumph.
Morse brought his average back up to .303, lifted the Nationals to their ninth straight road victory — tying a franchise record from the Expos in 1994 — and became the fourth player in team history to hit 30 or more home runs in a season. A year ago at this time, Morse was nothing more than a complementary bench player playing out the string. Even in May, his future was uncertain. Now, he's leading his team in every single offensive category.
"It shows that a lot of hard work and determination will pay off," Morse said. "I never gave up on myself and my career. ... It's a big accomplishment for me. This whole year, being able to know I'm in the lineup was a big accomplishment for me. Batting in the middle of the batting order was a big accomplishment. The little stuff meant a lot to me this year."
He also left the Nationals just two wins away from the first above-.500 season in their seven-year history. In many ways, they played just another "meaningless" game in Florida on Monday night. In many others, it was a game packed with significance.
"Any little thing that comes up this season is an accomplishment for us," Morse said. "Third place? Hey, it's better than we did last year.
"A lot of these guys wish there was another month left. ... We're showing teams that we can turn this division around soon."
The Nationals have done a lot since they moved to Washington in 2005, but almost all of it has been of a negative nature. Hundred-plus loss seasons? They have two.
They had never finished anywhere outside of last or second-to-last in the NL East ... until this season. And still, it's not the ultimate goal — something that has taken a long time to fully grasp. On Wednesday, when Johnson offers his team one final speech, that will be its tone. This season has been a strong one, an important one and they should take pride in it. But, he said, "We've got bigger hurdles to go."
"We want to win a World Series," Morse said. "In order to start winning World Series' you've got to win the division. That's our No. 1 goal and I think we're getting closer and closer to that."
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