For two days this week, the Washington Nationals sat idle. First the schedule, then mother nature giving them nothing to erase their last loss. Nothing to relive but a wasted weekend in Atlanta and magic numbers counting down their playoff chase that hadn’t moved in days.
But when they took the field Wednesday for the first game of a doubleheader on a picturesque afternoon, they were a team renewed. Buoyed by cortisone shots to the shoulders of third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and second baseman Danny Espinosa, and with the return of left fielder Michael Morse, the Nationals played much more like themselves in a 3-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
They wore down Dodgers starter Aaron Harang with base hits and scored all three of their runs on plays that resulted in outs. Bryce Harper, their 19-year-old sparkplug, tripled for his 49th extra-base hit of the season, a major league record for teenagers, and scored what stood up as the winning run. A team built on power played small ball, but they won.
In that regard it was like so many of the 89 victories that came before it, and yet it represented so much more. One more win and the Nationals will clinch the first playoff berth in team history — and the first for any Washington baseball team since 1933.
They didn’t have to wait long for their shot, their second game of the day — the potential clincher — began 30 minutes after they’d sealed the first.
But the Nationals have said for weeks that a simple playoff berth, which this season guarantees only entrance into the one-game wild card playoff, is not what they’re interested in. The National League East crown is in their sights and that is the one they’ll allow themselves to revel in clinching.
Before Wednesday’s game, needing any combination of Nationals wins or Braves losses totalling 10 to clinch the division, manager Davey Johnson was asked if he’d given much thought to the fact that it could be the day his team secures a playoff spot.
“Not really,” he said flatly. “I’m a math major, so I can count, you know? But I’m only concerned with the number 10.”
That number dropped to nine before they began their nightcap and could fall to seven by nights’ end if the Braves lose to the Miami Marlins and the Nationals win in the nightcap.
“The only thing that’s going to mean anything to me is when we clinch the pennant,” Johnson said after the first game. “That’s the only number I’m concerned about… And whatever number that is, that’s going to be my favorite number.”
So it is that a playoff berth, a mark that would’ve once seemed to be a monumental step for an organization just three seasons removed from back-to-back 100-loss campaigns, becomes merely a speedbump.
“It’s been a rewarding experience the whole season,” said Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, speaking before the team’s doubleheader and careful to note that the team hadn’t yet clinched anything at that point.
Playing with their first fully healthy lineup in a week, the Nationals chipped away at Harang. They opened the scoring in the second when Morse scored on a sacrifice fly to right field by catcher Kurt Suzuki. Harper scored in the fifth on a ground out by Zimmerman and Ian Desmond gave them some cushion, scoring on a groundout to second by pinch-hitter Tyler Moore.
“It tells me we can score without hitting a home run,” Johnson said. “That’s what you guys were worried about so we took care of that.”
Jordan Zimmermann was solid, if not spectacular, dodging baserunners in every inning but the fifth but allowed just one run over six innings.
“The last three innings I felt much better and was able to control everything,” Zimmermann said. “It was definitely good to get a win. The infields did a great job, played some great defense today.”
His 11th win of the season, the Nationals’ 90th, brought them within one of becoming the first team in the majors to punch their ticket for October.
“(It) makes a great statement in the city,” Rizzo said. “I think it’s great for the city to be a playoff team. Clinching a playoff berth is just one of the small steps in our grand plan. We’re looking forward to playing good baseball and winning games. We’re certainly going to take this one game at a time and click these mileposts off as they happen.”