The day after they clinched the National League East championship — and celebrated deep into the night — Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson wrote the names of only two of his regulars into the lineup. One was Bryce Harper, the 19-year-old with boundless energy still chasing some elusive teenage history.
The other came to the plate Tuesday night to chants of “MVP, MVP” cascading from the upper decks at Nationals Park, as a thick fog settled over it.
With one sixth-inning swing, LaRoche deposited a changeup from Josh Lindblom into the Nationals‘ bullpen and reached them both. He broke a tie with the Phillies and set new marks for himself. He kept the Nationals on-pace for the best record in baseball and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, and he keyed a two-run sixth that would stand to be enough for their 97th victory of the season.
“Anybody in the middle of the lineup, it’s kind of a milestone to reach 100,” LaRoche said. “If I had finished on 99, it would have been a tough pill to swallow. All that goes to Jayson [Werth], [Bryce Harper] and [Ryan Zimmerman] getting on in front of me all year. It feels good to have a little celebration two nights in a row.”
“He led off every inning,” Johnson said. “I think he figured, ‘I’m going to have to hit one out because nobody’s going to be on.’ He’s been great all year.”
He became just the third Nationals player ever to reach the 100-RBI plateau, joining Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn, and broke a home run mark he set six years ago when he was just 26 years old and a member of the Atlanta Braves. By the numbers, that was LaRoche’s “best” season. No longer.
“[This] is,” LaRoche said. “For a lot of reasons. Individually, I’m pretty happy with where I’m at. I’ll look back and look at some of the missed opportunities of things I could do better.
“But the fact that I’ve been able to put together some pretty good numbers, on top of us having tied for the best record in baseball, and clinching the division last night, that combination, I’d say no question, this has been the best year.”
The game was somewhat irrelevant for the Nationals in their post-clinching haze, outside of the outcome helping to determine their postseason spot. Before the game, they loafed around the clubhouse, some looking bleary-eyed and wrung out, but happy. The pressure of the last few weeks and the release that came when the Atlanta Braves lost Monday night showed in their carefree demeanors Tuesday afternoon.
Tom Gorzelanny, who pitched 3⅔ strong innings for the Nationals in a spot start, allowed a solo home run to Darin Ruf in the fourth. But LaRoche tied things up in the bottom of the inning, scoring on a single by Roger Bernadina. Ruf homered again in the eighth, but by then LaRoche’s homer and a pair of RBI from Steve Lombardozzi had given the Nationals plenty of cushion to work with.
“How about that Goon Squad?” Johnson said. “Told you they were tough.”
The only thing the game mattered for was seeding, and even then, they know that if they just continue to win, they won’t have anything to worry about. The Nationals own the tiebreaker with the Cincinnati Reds, should both division champions finish with the same record. They’ll need to win in their regular-season finale, or hope the Reds lose on Wednesday night, in order to clinch it. The Reds also won their 97th game on Tuesday night.
The No. 1 seed would mean the Nationals would await the winner of Friday night’s wild card playoff. The No. 2 spot would send them to San Francisco to begin the NLDS on Saturday. Having the top seed would also ensure the Nationals of home field advantage in the NLCS, should they get that far.
The Nationals don’t appear concerned one way or the other. In the clubhouse after the game, all of the televisions showed the Red Sox and Yankees extra-innings contest, not the Reds game against the St. Louis Cardinals, though it was about to reach its conclusion. Even Johnson said his priority for Wednesday is to see right-hander Edwin Jackson get his 10th win of the season, making all five of the Nationals‘ primary starters double-digit winners.
“I don’t know how it’s that important,” Johnson said of the No. 1 seed. “You’ve got to beat the teams you play. The only nice thing is we don’t have to fly cross-country … [But] the kind of year we’ve had, it would be fitting to finish it off with the best record.”
“It really doesn’t matter once those games start,” said Mark DeRosa, who started his first game since July 31, went 2-for-4, and came a few feet from his first home run since April 5, 2010 but had to settle for a double. “It’s who’s going to execute and who’s going to enjoy the moment instead of letting it get too big for them.”
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Amanda Comak covers the Washington Nationals and comes to The Washington Times from the Cape Cod Times and after stints with MLB.com and the Amsterdam (N.Y.) Recorder. A Massachusetts native and 2008 graduate of Boston University, Amanda can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow her on Twitter @acomak.
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