- The Washington Times - Monday, October 1, 2012

They sang the song in unison. It was one they’d heard 96 times before, the one they put on after every win they ticked off in this deliriously charmed season. They knew the words.

“I’m in the pursuit of happiness and I know, everything that shine ain’t always gonna be gold. I’ll be fine, once I get it.”

They jumped up and down and sprayed beer and champagne. They hugged and laughed and screamed. They soaked their new dark gray T-shirts and strapped on ski goggles and swim goggles and anything else they could find.

The Washington Nationals clinched the National League East championship Monday night and in the aftermath they doused themselves in everything they could find from Pedialyte to soda, Miller Lite and 2002 Dom Perignon. They sprayed shaving cream and powder. They circled the warning track and tossed champagne into the stands.

They gave their adoring fans the show they’d come to see.

“At this point, it’s almost like at church: Just turn to a partner and hug him,” said left-hander Gio Gonzalez. “This is unbelievable. This is just one of those breathtaking moments.”

“As much as you want to dream and see it on TV, there’s nothing like being soaked and freezing and just smelling like beer and champagne,” said closer Drew Storen. “There’s no better feeling in the world.”

It happened in an odd way, in the middle of a 2-0 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, as the Atlanta Braves’ 2-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates went final just after 9:45 p.m Monday night. Jordan Zimmermann and Gonzalez overheard fans say the game was over, they waited pensively for the scoreboard to show it. When it flashed the good news, they knew for sure.

They came in from the top of the ninth and smacked hands. They hugged and pumped their fists. Their own outcome had become happily irrelevant. The result 250 miles to the northwest of Washington let loose a celebration eight years in the making inside the District. They danced in the dugout as their loss went final and manager Davey Johnson came to the top step to raise his fists to the crowd.

They washed themselves in the cheers of the 35,387 that came to see this moment and they reveled in a moment only a handful of them had ever experienced before.

“It was not strange at all,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the face of a franchise that had waited so long for this day. “We worked so hard for that. We deserve it. We put ourselves in that position. By playing good baseball all year we made these other teams have to play perfect baseball to catch us.”

“It totally erased that loss which doesn’t ever happen to me,” said shortstop Ian Desmond.

“This is the first time in my life that I’ve rooted for the Pirates,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche, who played for Pittsburgh for parts of three seasons.

Back in the clubhouse, Michael Morse filled a Gatorade cooler with water from the shower and doused them. They pushed Wilson Ramos in a shopping cart as they sprayed him and circled around Mark DeRosa as he break-danced. Zimmerman and Jayson Werth stood in the middle of the group, leading the way.

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.”