It’s a far, far better thing they do, this winning, when rookie Stephen Lombardozzi pours an entire bottle of champagne down Ryan Zimmerman’s back as they celebrate on the Nats Park infield; when Stephen Strasburg does the limbo in the clubhouse while spraying a beer and when teenager Bryce Harper and Adam LaRoche’s nine-year-old son celebrate with apple cider.
Those two powerful words, “first place,” tend to propel the future as well as drive Washington’s elation right now. Losing builds character mostly in imagination; leave it for the big league’s other teams. D.C.’s had enough of it. Time to savor change.
The Nationals laid the foundation stone of future success Monday night at Nationals Park by clinching the championship of the National League East Division. “Great, great. . . . We built it so the town can enjoy it,” said owner Ted Lerner, standing on his infield. “There was some pain before [this] . . . but in life or business, there has to be.”
Put little weight in the way the Nats put a flag beside the name “Washington” for the first time since 1933. The Nats drove 96 nails, all wins, in the Atlanta coffin this season; the Braves drove the last into their own, losing to the Pirates, 2-1, in Pittsburgh while the Nats game with the Phillies was still in progress. There’s no such thing as “backing in” with a record of 96-64.
The Nats found out they’d won the division as they ran off the field trailing the Phillies 2-0 after the top of the ninth inning. “What a night,” said Alan Greenspan, lifelong fan and former chairman of the Federal Reserve. “They won it in the bottom of the ninth inning.”
Yes, adjusted by the information dispersal lag index, they did.
“This is a huge deal, winning the N.L. East. Are you kidding me?” said General Manager Mike Rizzo. “This division is as tough as any. We won it. Now, we’re setting our sights higher.”
October’s baseball postseason will have to contain remarkable feats for the Nats to surpass the stature within the sport and the self-confidence inside their own clubhouse that this accomplishment provides.
The Nats now hold a genuine title, a division pennant that authenticates them as only the words “first place” — captured over a six-month battle — can confer in baseball.
The Nats will not arrive on MLB’s big stage this weekend as a wild card facing a flimsy one-game play-in. Instead, they’ll be one of the elite six teams that get a bye into MLB’s Division Series round, the first time D.C.’s made any baseball prom in 79 years.
“Compared to where we were three years ago, it seems miraculous,” said Annette Lerner, Ted’s wife, remembering the ’08 and ’09 teams, both of them the worst in the sport.
Perhaps a touch of miraculous is just what D.C. deserves. Crisp blue-and-red five-year-old Nationals Park was the only appropriate place for this raucous clinching celebration, that’s for sure. How could St. Louis, or any other city, suffice? Since ’71, D.C. has had a three-phase project: get a big-league team back, built it a state-of-the-art ballpark and put a first-place team in it. That wasn’t so tough, was it? Only 41 years.