- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2014

ATLANTA — Hours before the game, quiet conversations were held in the clubhouse. Time killing, really, the common clock-watching that comes with a 162-game season.

One relief pitcher marveled at the number of goggles in his locker. The eye protection would be needed. A veteran talked with the clubhouse manager about the whereabouts and contents of the celebratory booze. It was sealed in a room down the hall, corked bottles of bubbly waiting to be treated with the reverence of draft beer at a frat party.

The clinch happened at 9:48 Eastern Daylight Time. The Washington Nationals charged out of their dugout along the third-base line to hug, scream and jump. Six months removed from spring training in Viera, Florida, the party was on in the damp Atlanta air. For the second time in three seasons, the Nationals had won the National League East division. A 3-0 win against the rival Atlanta Braves pushed the Nationals into the postseason Tuesday night.

“Just one step,” Jayson Werth said. “We’ve got a long way to go, a long, hard road ahead of us. Going to enjoy the moment for now.”

Drift back to the opener. Rookie manager Matt Williams was one game into his tenure and already there was strife. Wilson Ramos, the day’s cleanup hitter, was injured. His broken hand would force him to miss 32 games. The grind of the season had begun, causing Williams to go through many sleepless nights before allowing himself a respite to party in Atlanta.

Ramos was not the only key player the Nationals would be without during portions of the season. Starting pitchers Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez were hurt. Ryan Zimmerman has missed most of the journey. Bryce Harper lost 59 games because of thumb surgery.

“Some strange things have happened this year to us,” Williams said.

They were not enough to derail Tuesday night’s boozefest. Eight cases with 15 bottles each of Korbel champagne, plus 20 cases of beer, were supplemented by a rogue bottle of Willett rye whiskey, which was consumed cup-free.

Smashed beer cans and launched corks littered the soiled clubhouse floor. Protective translucent plastic hung from lockers. Music thumped, disco lights danced and alcohol ran down the backs of almost each person standing in the visitors clubhouse in Turner Field.

Headgear varied. Harper wore a DCFD helmet with “34 Harper” across the front. Fister strapped a GoPro camera to his noggin. Most wore new hats noting the Nationals as division champions.

Werth’s long hair was matted and drenched. Liquid hung in beads from his beard. After initially going with Oakley style glasses to protect his eyes from the liquid onslaught, he switched to smaller, reflective goggles that cupped over each eye individually. They made him look like a character in a science fiction film, but were ultimately the choice since the first set of eye wear leaked.

“They had little ports in them and I was getting crushed,” Werth said.

Turned away by most was the notion that clinching on the Braves’ field brought more satisfaction than clinching elsewhere. The priority, players said, was to be done with it, not geographical considerations. After the final out, the Nationals were booed by the remaining Braves fans. An hour later, several of them were on the field with their families watching a postgame concert. It was weird scene: here were the Nationals dancing and drinking on the sod of their largest rival.

Balance blended with tenacity, to use Williams‘ description, launched the Nationals into this long and yet-to-be finished run. July 1, the Nationals trailed the Braves by a half-game. Since, a 42-25 blitz shoved the Nationals into becoming the first National League team to enter the playoffs.

For 25 innings against the Nationals this season, Atlanta starter Aaron Harang had cruised. The large veteran had allowed just two earned runs against the Nationals in those 25 innings. He was sashaying through another strong evening until Ian Desmond hit a 2-2 fastball deep into the left-field seats in the sixth inning Tuesday. Desmond’s 23rd home run was the clinching shot.

“Curveball right down the middle,” Desmond said.

Desmond, the only player remaining on the team who was drafted in its previous life in Montreal, also scored on a wild pitch in the eighth inning. That run provided even more space for the seemingly inevitable.

Outdoing Harang was Tanner Roark. For seven innings, he pushed occasional singles to the side. He struck out five and walked none during economical 89-pitch work. He was more nervous than usual while doing it. Roark is always nervous prior to a game, but Tuesday’s circumstances elevated his heart rate twice. Though he usually heads into the clubhouse when pulled, Roark remained in the dugout to watch the eighth and ninth innings following his removal. That revamped the nerves. He was stuck on one thought after the game.

“We’re NL East champs,” Roark said.

Tyler Clippard followed him with a clean eighth inning. Drew Storen pitched the ninth for the save.

The postseason entrance will be the fifth in the franchise’s stop-and-start history. While in the American League, Washington went to the postseason three times: 1924, 1925 and 1933. To go with 2012, this will be the second appearance while a member of the National League.

There is work ahead. The Nationals are grappling with the Los Angeles Dodgers for the National League’s best record. A plan for that pursuit together with a break for regulars from the season’s relentlessness will be mapped.

Never planning beyond the current day was emphasized by Williams all season. It brought them the division title, after all. Now, he’ll have to adjust, like he did when the injuries hit or his closer could no longer get outs. Looking down the line is necessary.

In the clubhouse, his lack of hair produced a dry head and the color of his red T-shirt masked its saturation. After being an initial participant, he had stood back from the manic partying, already properly doused.

“I’m soaking wet,” Williams said.

Then, finally, Williams smiled. It lasted a second or so. He turned and closed the white door to the manager’s office. The music pumped on.

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