- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 29, 2012

ST. LOUIS — In the quiet calm that hovered over Busch Stadium Saturday afternoon, manager Davey Johnson sat in the dugout and looked out at the field. A groundskeeper made minor tweaks to the infield dirt, stadium personnel bustled around. Outside of the Champagne in cases at the ready, nothing seemed different about this day.

“I like the fact that we could clinch it today,” Johnson said, his face unflinching despite the weight that statement carried. “That’s always a good feeling.”

The full moon rose over the right field seats as the sky over St. Louis darkened. Every few moments, eyes in the Washington Nationals’ bullpen and dugout turned to the out of town scoreboard, pensively searching for the Braves-Mets score.

The Nationals took care of what they could, though they made it agonizingly difficult on themselves. They beat the Cardinals 6-4 in 10 innings with Kurt Suzuki lacing a double to left center field to drive in the game winners and break the 4-4 tie. But they knew by the seventh that Saturday would not be the night they sealed their National League East championship.

“We were probably watching that (out-of-town scoreboard) more than the game,” said right-hander Craig Stammen.

The Champagne was in the house. But as the Braves beat the Mets 2-0, it remained sealed at least for one more day.

Instead, after a heart-stopping ninth that featured Drew Storen’s first blown save of the season and forced them to play 10 before the finally got their desired result, they happily consoled themselves with the loneliest number. Their magic number. One.

“We’re ready to pop some Champagne for sure,” said Tyler Clippard. “We’re itching.”

“It’s the best position you can be in,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “We did everything we could to give ourselves a chance and now we’re to the ultimate position where we’ve given ourselves the best chance. Nothing’s going to come easy, nothing has come easy all year and I wouldn’t expect anything to come easy.”

Eight years ago on this day, Major League Baseball announced that baseball was returning to the nation’s capital. What followed were years at the bottom of the league, often as a laughingstock, and slow progress toward the top. But from the start this team has been different, the bright light at the end of the dark days for so many D.C. fans. A deliriously charmed season on the precipice of getting another exciting chapter.

Saturday night, on the back of yet another strong pitching performance and one of the most bizarre grand slams many had ever seen, the 2012 Nationals withstood the barrage of the reigning World Series champions and brought their franchise within one step of achieving a goal that once seemed darn near impossible.

A win on Sunday will clinch the Nationals’ first division title. A ticket to bypass the one-game wild card playoff and kick their feet up until the division series begins next weekend. Win, and they’re in.

“You don’t win 96 games without being tough, and I’ve got a tough group over there,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, his team not giving in even when the Cardinals kept pushing until the final out. “We’re in a pennant race and we’re not wilting.

The night started with a moment equal parts momentous and hilarious when they loaded the bases on Cardinals right-hander Kyle Lohse and Michael Morse stepped in. Morse reached out and sent the first pitch he saw, a sinker low and away, rocketing over the right field wall and off an electronic board ad just past the fence.

On the field the umpires ruled it to be in play, though, and the Nationals’ baserunners were confused accordingly. Ryan Zimmerman held after rounding third. Adam LaRoche found himself sprinting back to second. Bryce Harper scampered safely into the dugout with the Nationals’ first run, but Morse appeared to be out after sprinting and sliding back to first base. He threw up his arms, bewildered.

The umpires reviewed it and properly overturned it to a grand slam, a significant early body blow to Lohse and the Cardinals. And then they made all the Nationals’ runners go back to the bases they’d started at and run the play again. The dugout pleaded with him to fake a swing, Yadier Molina told him the same.

Morse stood in the box, the sheer ridiculousness of the act not lost on him, and pantomimed his swing to put the runners in motion. He smacked himself on the helmet between first and second, as he does on every home run and when he finally made it back to the dugout his teammates were there ready to finally greet him.

“It was just such a crazy moment,” Morse said, his highlight reel playing in the background on the clubhouse televisions. “Might as well have some fun with it.”

It was all the scoring the Nationals would put together until Suzuki came to the plate in the 10th. They struck out 13 times and had just one extra-base hit from innings two through nine. But Adam LaRoche walked to leadoff the 10th inning and Roger Bernadina promptly bunted him over. With Danny Espinosa due up, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny opted to walk to the second baseman.

Suzuki, who has hit .322 and driven in 20 runs out of the No. 8 spot in the Nationals’ lineup over the past 27 games, got felt his adrenaline pulse as Espinosa trotted to first base.

“That kind of lights a fire under you,” Suzuki said, his offensive rejuvenation since arriving in Washington one of their biggest pluses the past few weeks. “Not that you don’t go up there with a fire under you anyway, but especially in that situation, they want to pitch to you. So you want to go up there and make them pay.”

“He’s been outstanding,” Johnson said. “It seems like the last 10 games, he’s been swinging a hot bat and getting big hits, maybe longer than that. I really like his approach. He’s a gamer, he likes those situations. That was huge.”

Jordan Zimmermann gave them six strong innings before he began to struggle with one out in the seventh, giving up three straight hits and walking David Freese before his night was over — allowing the Cardinals to make it a game with three runs in the frame. Back-to-back singles in the ninth and a sacrifice fly allowed them to tie it off Storen.

When it was over, the Nationals had bent – giving the Cardinals a glimmer of hope and certainly forcing the hearts of their own fanbase to flutter a little faster — but they did not break. They did not falter entirely on this night. They made sure that the promise of tomorrow was in their hands. Win, and they’re in.

“You don’t have a bad taste in your mouth after tonight,” Storen said. “I think we showed a lot and we showed what good teams do, that’s bounce back and battle through the adversity. It’s ours to take tomorrow. We’re going to lace it up and try to get it done.”

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