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The Nationals played to the best record in baseball for the majority of the season, but they found the most important wins difficult to get. As the days passed, they continued to exude quiet confidence. All they needed was one win to squash the Braves’ slim hopes.

“It’s in our hands,” general manager Mike Rizzo said Monday afternoon. “And we’re going to take care of business.”

Ultimately, they didn’t have to. Even as they faltered, they succeeded. Chants of “Let’s go Pirates!” cascaded from the stands at Nationals Park. Jared Hughes closed out Pittsburgh’s win. The park on South Capitol Street exploded. They knew.

“I think that’s when it sunk in,” LaRoche said. “It’s like, ‘OK, we can all take a deep breath.’ The last few games haven’t gone as planned but we got it done. I think that was the moment there when we knew this was actually happening and we were in.”

“For all of those guys that worked so hard together for one goal for so long, we’ve been together since February,” Zimmerman said. “To go through a lot of the ups and downs, to be around each other every single day and go through the adversity we did as a team this year, it’s very gratifying. It’s a team effort.”

The game they played beforehand wasn’t one of their finest. They came up small in large situations, they stranded seven and went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position and looked at strike three in that situation three times. They put just four balls out of the infield on Kyle Kendrick. But none of it mattered.

“Once they put that on the scoreboard, the game’s an afterthought,” said reliever Tyler Clippard. “It’s been a long road, it doesn’t matter.”

It was the culmination of everything they had worked for. Of six weeks in a spring training filled with bravado and proclamations, and 160 individual battles — many of which bore out the simple fact that their confidence was not misplaced.

The Nationals are the best team in the majors. They dazzled with their pitching, which was backed by one of the most potent offenses in the league as the season went on.

They beat good teams (46-39 against teams over .500) and bad teams (50-24 against teams below that mark). On the road (45-33) and at home (48-33). In amassing 96 wins with two games left, they became the standard for an organization that had only dreamed of such heights.

In the years that come for the Nationals, regardless of what fates allows for their playoff run, they will have 2012 as a benchmark. The first year they won the National League East. The year they spent 180 days in first place.

The scene in the clubhouse immediately after the game was described as “total pandemonium.” They poured beer over the head of 86-year-old owner Ted Lerner and even his wife Annette was not immune. Johnson, in his uniform pants and undershirt, stood off to the side with a grin plastered to his face. Rizzo, who called clinching a division as a GM “ten times” better than clinching it as a scouting director, tried to do interviews on the field with his players smothering him every few minutes.

“Keep pouring it,” he said. “I love it.”

“This is satisfaction,” Zimmerman said. “We’ve come a long way and it’s been a long year. To finish on top was something I’ll never forget.”