- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 10, 2017

When the Washington Nationals walked into their clubhouse last Thursday following a return from a road trip, they noticed a new addition. Rolled up and temporarily contained were layers of plastic anchored high on the walls. They were in place to protect lockers, flat screens and counters from future launches of liquid.

A day later, the floor turned from red to beige after temporary carpet was secured with blue tape on top of the permanent Nationals red carpet. The booze that would be sprayed and goggles that would be worn Sunday were not in plain view.

The celebration those preparations braced for was unleashed Sunday afternoon. The Nationals beat the Philadelphia Phillies, 3-2, behind ongoing dominance from Stephen Strasburg, who has pitched an organization record 34 consecutive scoreless innings. The Miami Marlins lost in extra innings in Atlanta following a ninth-inning collapse. That combination allowed Washington to clinch its second consecutive National League East Division championship. Down came the plastic. In came the mayhem. The carpet turned moist.

Jayson Werth’s lengthy hair was balled up tight in a man bun. His age and presence made him a preferred target of young and old teammates. If a microphone was in front of him, cascading streams of alcohol were soon to follow. A mix of beer and champagne flowed over his head until it spurred him to hop and whoop. What other choice does someone have when the opportunity to act like an out-of-control college kid arrives when you are 38 years old?

For the fourth time in six years, Werth celebrated a division championship in Washington. The teams have changed, as has the aura and demands around Washington’s baseball team. But, the only thing that becomes stale from the flowing vibe of a baseball clinch celebration is the carpet.

“We’ve been a winning club, had one of the best regular-season records since I’ve been here,” Werth said. “I’m proud of that. I’ve got a lot to be proud of with this organization, this team, we’ve got a great group.”

In his answer comes the rub. Celebrating division titles has become commonplace for an organization that shifted from doormat to power laden. Four times in the last six years this level of celebration by the Nationals has happened. Each time, they lost in the first round of the playoffs.

The effort to rectify that will start in October. For now, Sunday’s party will have to do.

The Nationals finished their part to make it happen with a brisk 2:16 win against Philadelphia. Then, the wait began. Washington needed Miami to lose in Atlanta to eliminate the Marlins and seal the division. Once Miami took an 8-5 lead in the ninth inning, Werth got dressed. The couple of thousand fans that stayed at Nationals Park to watch the Marlins game on the scoreboard groaned. It looked like the celebration would have to wait until Tuesday since Washington has a day off Monday.

Instead, the Braves assembled a three-run bottom of the ninth inning. Fans in the stands wearing red Nationals T-shirts began to do the Braves’ signature “tomahawk chop.” Even some Nationals players joined in to cut through the air in the clubhouse. In the bottom of the 11th inning, Lane Adams, who was only in the game because Matt Adams left with a strained hamstring, came to the plate. His third career home run landed in the stands at Atlanta’s SunTrust Park. Fireworks shot off at Nationals Park. The championship hats and T-shirts were pulled on and the team eventually shuffled back to the field to celebrate.

“I said, ‘I’m going to double-jinx this,’ and got dressed,” Werth said. “Sure enough, I had to get changed when that guy hit the walkoff. All part of the plan, right?”

Washington became the first team in baseball this season to clinch a postseason spot. Manager Dusty Baker has two division titles to his credit since taking over for Matt Williams following the 2015 season. Baker, 68, was able to evade much of the airborne alcohol until a trio of young players decided to take their chances and soaked him down.

“it looked like we were going to have to wait until Tuesday but now it’s like a perfect, perfect scenario,” Baker said. “We can enjoy tonight and have a day off tomorrow because you usually have to come back and play the next day. And guys are either super tired or hungover. When you stop working, and then kind of all of a sudden crashes on you and now everybody can just go crash tonight and then we got to come back and start all over again. But in the meantime, let this wild bunch enjoy today.”

He roared with laughter and pointed at different groups getting after each other. Baker sought out Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner, who was in the clubhouse to watch all the money his family spent enjoy a festive Sunday.

Winning the division title this year has seemed inevitable for the Nationals since July. Their opponents in the east were caught in year-long slogs. Washington’s hitting was the best in the league until its pitching caught up and the groups switched. That’s how a team can clinch a playoff spot on Sept. 10, two weeks before they did last season. That was why the plastic was put up and the carpet pressed down, despite its presence rattling belief systems.

“The superstitious part of me thinks, ‘Why are we doing this?’” Max Scherzer said of the clubhouse arrangements. “But, then you realize, look, we do have a 15-game lead, we are going to clinch this thing. It’s not a matter of if anymore. It’s a matter of when.”

Adams, the woeful Miami bullpen, Strasburg and a litany of young players marked the date Sunday. Washington has three weeks to rest, recover and align pitchers. October baseball is coming again.

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