ATLANTA — There was a time when the moment that is coming for the Washington Nationals might have been considered the apex. An organization that knew nothing but losing, often in unimaginably torturous ways, from the first day it arrived in Washington in 2005 once would have been leaping for joy at just the idea of such a thought.
The Nationals are close to clinching a playoff berth, the first in Washington since 1933.
They entered Sunday night’s game against the Atlanta Braves with a magic number of 11 to clinch the division. The number to clinch a playoff wild card spot is lower. Any combination of wins by the Nationals or losses by the Dodgers totaling three will do it. The Dodgers, who come to Nationals Park this week, are a game out of the final wild card spot. The Nationals could make that number two with a win Sunday.
But when it happens, it likely will pass without much note.
“I don’t think there’ll be a whole lot of celebrating when we clinch a wild card spot,” said reliever Craig Stammen, a 2005 draftee of the Nationals who made his major league debut as part of arguably the worst Nationals team ever, the 2009 unit that lost 103 games.
“I don’t think at the beginning of the year when you set your goals, winning the last wild card is the goal,” Stammen added. “I think all along the goal has been to win the East. Having the best record in the National League, that goes along with it. I think those are two goals that are within reach, and two goals we set for at the beginning of the year, and we should keep as our goals right now.”
The Nationals have not discussed, formally at least, how they will celebrate when they assure themselves of a playoff spot. Their magic number to clinch the National League East would be down to nine with a win over the Braves on Sunday night.
But the lack of discussion alone should bluntly explain how little the milestone will mean to the team that has held first place in the division for 162 days this season and the best record in all of the major leagues for a good portion of it. The Nationals had never completed a winning season before this year, either. Their 82nd win, assuring them of that, passed without more than a brief mention within the walls of the clubhouse.
“There’s no sense on patting ourselves on the back yet,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, one of the last remaining players who was drafted by the organization when it was still the Montreal Expos. “We came into spring training with a big mission, and we’ve been working hard to fulfill that all year long.”
The clinching of a playoff spot likely will come with some T-shirts, supplied by Major League Baseball, that acknowledge the Nationals as one of the 10 teams that qualify for postseason play this year. Maybe it will come with a few words from one of the team leaders, maybe even a toast of sorts, though players shook their heads when asked if they had given that any thought. But this much sounds sure: the dog-piling, the champagne showers, it’s all doubtful until the division is secured.
After merely a playoff spot?
“We’ll probably come in and put the same song on like we always do,” Desmond said with a chuckle, the Nationals’ home and road “win” playlists more than familiar by now as they entered Sunday one away from the 90-win threshold.
“It’s not a big moment,” manager Davey Johnson said Friday with a shrug. “It’s a nice moment but it’s not a big moment.”
Part of the Nationals’ reluctance to revel in that particular achievement comes from their over-arching goals for this season. They know exactly how good they are, and so does the rest of the baseball world after 145 games, so there’s no sense in celebrating one minor step on their way to the larger accomplishment they’re also nearing.
But part of it is because of the new playoff format this season. A wild card berth, once equally as valuable as a division crown, only ensures one extra game this season. To the Nationals, that’s not enough.
“It’s a playoff chance, it’s not a playoff spot,” Desmond said. “You have that one game wild card game and you lose that and that’s not a playoff berth. … It could essentially be just one extra game.”
“I think the circumstance we’re in now, we can’t be satisfied with just making the playoffs,” Stammen added. “We feel like we have a good enough chance to go farther in the playoffs and potentially win everything, and I think that that should be our main goal this year, not the wild card.”