- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 2, 2012

All night the Washington Nationals couldn’t get anything going. They scored no runs and finished with just five hits and a 2-0 loss.

Yet at 9:45 Monday night, pandemonium erupted at Nationals Park. One lackluster performance against the Philadelphia Phillies on Oct. 1 didn’t seem to matter much as players hugged and high-fived each other in the dugout to celebrate their National League East title following the Atlanta Braves’ loss.

“We’re the champs, that’s all that matters,” closer Drew Storen said. “We’re division champs; that’s what we wanted to do from Day One of spring training. You know what, we’re going to win when it matters.”

The previous two-plus hours were so quickly forgotten. Kyle Kendrick’s dominance and plenty of missed opportunities were part of Game No. 160. But one loss of 64 didn’t dampen the celebration.

“The way it happened tonight, it doesn’t really matter,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “We put ourselves in that position to have the luxury of having the other team have to play perfect baseball. We played a great 159, 160 games to get to that point. We should be commended for that.”

One stumble near the finish line won’t be remembered. Instead, the champagne and beer showers and fans’ chants will overshadow it. The 35,387 in attendance likely won’t remember how the Nationals went quietly in the ninth because the message “NL East Division Champions” was flashing from video boards all around the park.

John Lannan got the loss, a tired Craig Stammen struck out all six batters he faced and the Phillies and Nationals celebrated separately on the field afterward as fireworks erupted.

“A little awkward. A little awkward, but we’ll take it,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “Whatever. It’s a first time for everything I guess.”

All eyes were on the out-of-town scoreboard for much of the night. Once the Pirates took a 2-1 lead on Starling Marte’s solo homer in the fifth, the Braves’ outs melted away one by one.

“This is a first. This is the first time in my life that I’ve rooted for the Pirates,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche, who, incidentally, spent parts of three seasons with Pittsburgh.

Said center fielder Bryce Harper: “It [stinks] that we lost but this is bigger. I think coming into this game and trying to win, I want to thank the Pirates for letting us celebrate right now, because this is unbelievable.”

Asked if he had ever celebrated after a loss, pitcher Jordan Zimmermann said, “Never like this.”

Jayson Werth, a veteran of four NL East champion celebrations and a few others with the Phillies, supplied some of the goggles to protect teammates’ eyes from the Dom Perignon and Miller Lite. He knew what to expect but couldn’t have predicted how this would go down.

“I’ve never done it like that on a loss,” he said. “Usually it’s gone the other way. But we’ll take it however we can get it.”

And it wasn’t like the Nationals needed to pop the champagne before the celebration was on. Even though Gio Gonzalez said he and his teammates talked about getting inside the clubhouse at the end of the game, the bullpen was already into it during the bottom of the ninth.

“We were celebrating,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. “I kind of joked, I was like, ‘Oh, if we tie this thing up, who’s going to pitch?’”

It never got to that. And players didn’t really get to thinking much about what had transpired on the field earlier in the night.

“Once they put that on the scoreboard, the game’s an afterthought,” Clippard said. “It’s been a long road, it doesn’t matter.”

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