The exhilaration of the Washington Nationals’ first division crown still coursed through Nationals Park on Tuesday night. The clubhouse had a faint day-after smell of champagne, beer and wet carpet. Fans cheered at the introduction of their “National League East champion Washington Nationals.” This city’s long-awaited playoff appearance was nearly set.
Save one important factor: who the Nationals would play. Entering their penultimate regular season game, the Nationals had a vague idea of which team they would face in their National League Divisional Series. They had four potential opponents. And with Tuesday night’s 4-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies using mostly backup players, the Nationals shed only a little more light on the uncertainty.
The Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga joins the Post Sports Live crew to talk about the significance of the Nationals’ clinching of the National League East.
From spring training to the playoffs, the Nationals tell the story of their breakthrough season.
With the win, Nationals trimmed their magic number to claim the top seed in the National League to one. But the Cincinnati Reds’ 3-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals kept them tied with the Nationals for the league’s best record. The Nationals, who hold the tiebreaker because they won the season series against the Reds, control their own fate. Win the regular season finale on Wednesday and Washington would begin the city’s first playoff series since 1933 as the top seed. Lose and they could be the second seed, unless the Reds lose, too.
Nationals Manager Davey Johnson was concerned enough about seeding to skip Tuesday’s scheduled starter, Gio Gonzalez, and give left-handed long reliever Tom Gorzelanny his first start since July 2011. In doing so, Johnson avoided the possibility of Gonzalez starting the playoff opener on Saturday on short rest should the Nationals fall behind the Reds. But after Tuesday’s game he said he cared little about earning the NL’s top regular season record.
“I don’t know how it’s that important,” he said. “You’ve got to beat the teams you play. The only nice thing is we don’t have to fly cross-country [in the divisional series]. That’s the only nice thing. The pitching’s set up for whoever we play. The kind of year we’ve had, it would be fitting to finish it off with the best record. And more importantly, I’d like to see [Wednesday’s starter Edwin] Jackson get his 10th win. That’s a little higher up on the list than best record.”
With one more win, the Nationals would face the winner of Friday’s one-game wild-card playoff between the Atlanta Braves and Cardinals. Even if the Nationals lose their 1 p.m. game on Wednesday, a Reds loss would still hand them the top seed. It took 160 games for the Nationals to claim the NL East crown. It will take one more game to determine whom they will face next.
In addition to resting Gonzalez, Johnson filled Tuesday’s lineup card with six backup position players. Johnson wasn’t necessarily conceding the top seed, but said he wanted to reward his regular starters with a day off. Many of the players on the field, such as Steve Lombardozzi, Roger Bernadina and Tyler Moore, were regular players this season while established starters were injured. Still, with the rarely used, 37-year-old Mark DeRosa starting at shortstop for the first time in six years, it felt a little like a meaningless October game.