- The Washington Times - Monday, October 1, 2012

Already assured of a playoff berth, the Washington Nationals made history Monday night by clinching first place in the National League East.

Despite losing 2-0 to the Philadelphia Phillies, Washington wrapped up the division by virtue of Atlanta’s loss at Pittsburgh.

Neither of the city’s previous major-league franchises — now known as the Minnesota Twins and Texas Rangers — won a division title.

Granted, Major League Baseball didn’t institute divisional play until 1969, two seasons before the reincarnated Washington Senators left for Texas. Those Senators never finished in the American League’s top half, while the original Senators won just three AL pennants during their tenure (1901-1960), the last coming in 1933.

“This season is big,” said journalist and D.C. baseball historian Phil Wood. “From the perspective of somebody who’s a native Washingtonian, you never thought about the postseason growing up with the Senators. You’d be happy if they just played better than .500.”

The 2012 Nationals, of course, have played much better than that, creating an unprecedented experience for most D.C. baseball fans. There hasn’t been much enjoyment since the Montreal Expos relocated to Washington in 2005. The franchise finished 81-81 that year and posted losing records since then, including back-to-back 100-loss campaigns in 2008 and 2009.

But it seems as if the Nationals are making up for all that misery in one fell swoop, as they have had baseball’s best record much of the season and are legitimate threats to reach the World Series. Charlie Brotman, a longtime Washingtonian who served as the Senators’ public address announcer from 1956 to 1971, is in disbelief.

“When you talk about the Nationals being where they are, in the playoffs, I’m saying please don’t pinch me because I don’t want to wake up,” Mr. Brotman said. “Is this for real? Are you kidding me? We’re in the playoffs!”

The Nationals have enjoyed national publicity for most of the season, largely thanks to pitcher Stephen Strasburg and rookie outfielder Bryce Harper, two of baseball’s best and brightest young stars. Management’s decision to limit Strasburg’s innings and shut him down last month was a huge story, virtually overshadowing everything else. But month by month, as the Nationals continued to win, fans slowly realized that the team was for real — even though the past couple of weeks had been more stressful than anticipated as the Nats worked to try to clinch the NL East.

“This has been more tense than expected for a lot of fans,” said Patrick Reddington, who writes the Nats-focused Federal Baseball blog. “We thought they’d wrap it up a couple of weeks ago. But this is definitely a lot more exciting than it’s been the last couple of years, when they were out of contention in June or July.”

Even a total collapse after building an 81/2-game lead over second-place Atlanta would not have kept the Nationals from reaching the playoffs. And it wouldn’t have put a damper on what appears to be a bright future for the next couple of seasons, considering the team’s overall youth. But the now-passed threat of failing to win the division and settling for a wild card was enough to temper the enthusiasm of some fans.

“There’s a lot of heartbreak with longtime Washington baseball fans,” said Mark Hornbaker, creator of DCBaseballHistory.com. “I’m not one to get overly excited at this point. But this is unbelievable. After about 10 years with no team in Washington you started doubting if the day would ever come when we got a team. Right now, this season has to go down as the biggest season since 1924 [when the Senators won the World Series].”

The 2012 Nationals would have to win at least two playoff series to reach the World Series. But Mr. Brotman said they already have left their mark on the city, regardless.

“This is a winning sports town,” he said. “When the Washington Nationals are winning, everybody’s on the bandwagon. It’s so exciting. I’ve been with baseball for so many years, and they’ve all been losers. This is incredible to be associated with a winner.”

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