ST. LOUIS — In the quiet calm that hovered over Busch Stadium Saturday afternoon, manager Davey Johnson sat in the dugout and looked out at the field. A groundskeeper made minor tweaks to the infield dirt, stadium personnel bustled around. Outside of the Champagne in cases at the ready, nothing seemed different about this day.
“I like the fact that we could clinch it today,” Johnson said, his face unflinching despite the weight that statement carried. “That’s always a good feeling.”
The full moon rose over the right field seats as the sky over St. Louis darkened. Every few moments, eyes in the Washington Nationals’ bullpen and dugout turned to the out of town scoreboard, pensively searching for the Braves-Mets score.
The Nationals took care of what they could, though they made it agonizingly difficult on themselves. They beat the Cardinals 6-4 in 10 innings with Kurt Suzuki lacing a double to left center field to drive in the game winners and break the 4-4 tie. But they knew by the seventh that Saturday would not be the night they sealed their National League East championship.
“We were probably watching that (out-of-town scoreboard) more than the game,” said right-hander Craig Stammen.
The Champagne was in the house. But as the Braves beat the Mets 2-0, it remained sealed at least for one more day.
Instead, after a heart-stopping ninth that featured Drew Storen’s first blown save of the season and forced them to play 10 before the finally got their desired result, they happily consoled themselves with the loneliest number. Their magic number. One.
“We’re ready to pop some Champagne for sure,” said Tyler Clippard. “We’re itching.”
“It’s the best position you can be in,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “We did everything we could to give ourselves a chance and now we’re to the ultimate position where we’ve given ourselves the best chance. Nothing’s going to come easy, nothing has come easy all year and I wouldn’t expect anything to come easy.”
Eight years ago on this day, Major League Baseball announced that baseball was returning to the nation’s capital. What followed were years at the bottom of the league, often as a laughingstock, and slow progress toward the top. But from the start this team has been different, the bright light at the end of the dark days for so many D.C. fans. A deliriously charmed season on the precipice of getting another exciting chapter.
Saturday night, on the back of yet another strong pitching performance and one of the most bizarre grand slams many had ever seen, the 2012 Nationals withstood the barrage of the reigning World Series champions and brought their franchise within one step of achieving a goal that once seemed darn near impossible.
A win on Sunday will clinch the Nationals’ first division title. A ticket to bypass the one-game wild card playoff and kick their feet up until the division series begins next weekend. Win, and they’re in.
“You don’t win 96 games without being tough, and I’ve got a tough group over there,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, his team not giving in even when the Cardinals kept pushing until the final out. “We’re in a pennant race and we’re not wilting.
The night started with a moment equal parts momentous and hilarious when they loaded the bases on Cardinals right-hander Kyle Lohse and Michael Morse stepped in. Morse reached out and sent the first pitch he saw, a sinker low and away, rocketing over the right field wall and off an electronic board ad just past the fence.
On the field the umpires ruled it to be in play, though, and the Nationals’ baserunners were confused accordingly. Ryan Zimmerman held after rounding third. Adam LaRoche found himself sprinting back to second. Bryce Harper scampered safely into the dugout with the Nationals’ first run, but Morse appeared to be out after sprinting and sliding back to first base. He threw up his arms, bewildered.