Their 98 wins marked an 18-win improvement over last year, a 29-win increase from 2010 and a 39-win leap from 2009. The Nationals gathered in February as an upstart and emerged seven months later as a juggernaut, primed to take on Washington’s first major league postseason since 1933.
“You knew the potential was there, but we’ve played beyond everyone’s expectations,” said starter Edwin Jackson, who earned his 10th win with 62
3 innings of one-run ball. “It’s just a matter of how you approach it. If you come out expecting to win games rather than hoping to win games, then you win games. You don’t hope. You take the field knowing that you’re going to beat every team you’re playing.”
The Cincinnati Reds could have tied the Nationals at 98 wins if they won their regular season finale later Wednesday night, but the Nationals earned the top seed by virtue of beating the Reds, 5-2, in the season series. The Nationals, then, will avoid a cross-country flight to play the San Francisco Giants and will play the first playoff game at Nationals Park next Wednesday.
For the first seven years after baseball’s return to Washington, the 162nd game would have ended their season. Now the reminders of October baseball, of more to come, surround them. Wednesday morning in the Nationals clubhouse, players were fitted for new hats with the official “Postseason” logo patch on the side.
“This is a great season, a great team, a good group of guys, and we accomplished a lot that we should be proud of,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “But we have a lot more to accomplish, hopefully.”
In the other dugout, the Phillies came to grips with an 81-81 record that snapped a string of nine winning seasons and five division titles. They, like the Nationals, absorbed injuries all season. Unlike the Nationals, their depth did not allow them to contend. But they still have three top-shelf starters, and the rivalry may reach new hostility in 2013.
“It’s all coming together for them,” shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. “So, that’s great for them. But with us being healthy, they’re still in second place. But we weren’t.”
It is not the critic who counts. The Nationals seized their final victory of the season, and sealed a 9-9 split with the now-former NL East champion, behind Jackson’s rebound start. After recording four outs Friday in St. Louis, Jackson allowed six hits and walked one while striking out six. He left his final regular season start to a standing ovation, waving to the crowd with his right hand.