That they had clinched on a loss could not stifle the cheers or quell the party. And why should it have?
“We won 96 games,” owner Theodore N. Lerner said, standing on the infield grass in a quieting stadium. “So we’ll take it.”
In the middle of the ninth inning, Manager Davey Johnson climbed the steps of the dugout and waved to the crowd. The lights of the Capitol Dome glowed in the distance. The city, with three meaningless outs to go, had witnessed its first clinching of first place since the Washington Senators won the pennant in 1933.
No one could quite point their finger to when it hit them. But during a season sprinkled with pixie dust they all reached the same conclusion.
“The boys thought we were the team to beat,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said.
The Nationals had lost the clincher, but they had earned their way to the top of the division. They gathered in spring training as an upstart separating themselves from a dismal past. They sprinted out of the gate. They weathered injuries that would have obliterated their season if not for minor league reinforcements, particularly their 19-year-old shock of energy. They emerged in late summer as the best team in the major leagues, good enough to lose nine of 17 games and preserve their first division title.
“We put ourselves in that position,” said Zimmerman, the franchise third baseman who signed a $100 million contract to play here the rest of his career. “We made these other teams play perfect baseball to catch us. The way we played all year is really what got us in this position.”
The Nationals snatched the crown off the collective head of the Phillies, who had celebrated three of their five consecutive division titles — 2007, ’08 and ’10 — with victories over Washington. This year, the Phillies will watch the playoffs from home, and Monday night they had to watch the Nationals slip on T-shirts and hats, even after a win.
“That’s the first time I ever won and got beat,” Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel said.
After the final out, the players lingered on the steps of the dugout and received the hats and T-shirts before retreating to their clubhouse. The Nationals had shipped their unopened champagne, Korbel and a few bottles of higher-shelf stuff, back from St. Louis. “There’s enough,” clubhouse manager Mike Wallace said before the game, smiling.