As the home team prepared to bat Monday night in the bottom of the eighth at Nationals Park, the video screen flashed a favorable update from the Braves-Pirates game. A rousing cheer rose from the slightly-chilled crowd of 35,387 fans, one of the few chances they had all evening to fully exercise their vocal chords.
Phillies righty Kyle Kendrick had kept the Nationals and their supporters quiet for seven shutout innings, but he made for reliever Justin De Fratus and it got really loud when Jayson Werth laced a one-out single and Bryce Harper followed with a walk. But the noise level quickly dissipated after Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche were retired, leaving the score at 2-0.
Chants of “Let’s go Pirates!” broke out as Drew Storen recorded the first out in the top of the ninth, some fans obviously tuned in to the proceedings in Pittsburgh, where the Braves trailed 2-1. Just after Storen recorded the final out of the inning, the video board flashed the final and now the place was bedlam.
The presidents came out on the field and there was a prolonged standing ovation as the players exchanged hugs and handshakes in the dugout. The Nats were still losing but that didn’t matter. The scoreboard told the real story: NL East Division Champions.
Finally, the pressure was released. The Nats had clinched Washington’s first major league title since the Senators’ AL pennant in 1933. No one cared that the Nats “backed in.” The fog horn blared and the crowd went wild as the Phillies conducted the victory receiving line. Fireworks exploded as the Nats gathered in front of the dugout and broke out their division champion T-shirts.
A number of fans stayed behind and watched the video screen, which was showing the clubhouse celebration. It was as raucous as any jubilee you’ve ever seen shy of a World Series clincher. Manager Davey Johnson was being interviewed by broadcaster F.P. Santangelo when Gio Gonzalez, Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and others came streaming onto to the field to share with the fans who remained.
Now it seemed like the whole team was back on the field. Michael Morse ran to his post in left field and doused fans with water and champagne. Players were joined by their wives and children. General manager Mike Rizzo was conducting an interview, saying the division crown is only the first step.
No one wanted to think about the next step at the moment though. Everyone was too busy relishing the steps that brought the franchise this far.
The lousy fundamentals, anemic pitching and weak hitting, almost from the moment the team arrived from Montreal in 2005. The last-place finishes in five of six seasons — the only reprieve being a next-to-last-place finish. The back-to-back 100-loss seasons.
Now the Nats were taking a victory lap around the field, waving and slapping high fives with fans, 30 minutes after Danny Espinosa recorded the final out. No one wanted to leave and end the moment.
Yes, there were two more games against Philly to end the regular season, and then a playoff opponent to be determined. But all of that can wait. Besides, this was good practice for potential celebrations later this month.
The last few weeks provided good practice for handling the stress of late-season baseball. Washington led the division race but it never felt comfortable, especially after the Nats clinched a playoff berth on Sept. 20. The Braves kept winning and staying close, even as their odds of catching Washington grew slimmer and slimmer.
Discomfort was in the air all night Monday, from the moment starter John Lannan yielded a sharp single to leadoff hitter Kevin Frandsen. The Nats’ magic number was down to one, but losing the opener of a three-game series would make everyone a little tighter. The Phillies hit Lannan’s pitches hard but managed just two runs over his five innings.
Those were two more runs than the Nats scored in the loss, but that was OK. Even as Kendrick was mowing down Washington’s hitters and quieting Washington’s fans, the out-of-town scoreboard was assuaging fears.
Not that the Pirates one-run lead was enough to make anyone relax. But as long as that score remained the same, it lessened the impact of Washington’s score following suit. That’s all that mattered in the end, when Pittsburgh reliever Jared Hughes induced a groundout from Braves catcher Brian McCann at 9:45 p.m.
The Nats lost eight minutes later, but you’ve never seen a happier bunch after a defeat. The team and its fan could finally let loose. The division flag will fly in Washington.