Washington Nationals win National League East title that may be first of many

Thomas Boswell
Columnist October 1, 2012

The best education is victory.

The best experience a young rising major league baseball power such as the Washington Nationals can have is not the toughened hide born of failure or the calluses of a September collapse. One of the convenient fables of sports is that you have to lose before you can win.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

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.

“[Lifelong] Washingtonians know what this means,” said Rizzo’s special assistant Harolyn Cardozo, in tears, giving Jayson Werth a hug. “I just keep thinking of my parents, how much they would have loved this.”

The Nats iced their division crown by a three-game margin over the perennially excellent Atlanta Braves. Perhaps as important for long-term impact, the Nats left the rest of what was considered a powerful division so far in their wake that you can barely glimpse the Phillies, Mets and Marlins, who are a respective 15, 23 and 28 games in arrears.

Now, for this clinching moment at least, let the record show the Nats are tied for the best record in baseball with the Reds. When the Nats finally did something right, they forsook D.C. ancient baseball vice (modesty) and went the whole hog.

Perhaps casual fans don’t grasp the difference between what the Nats have now accomplished and what a wild-card spot, which they clinched 11 days ago, would have meant. Ask any player which matters more, simply getting into the playoffs, winning a wild-card play-in game and perhaps even capturing a quick five-game division series — or going 96-64, .600 ball, to own the N.L. East. There’s no comparison. In baseball, the six-month season is the real truth serum.

Nights such as Monday are meant for fans of every age to remember and pass down. But consider a nod of commiseration toward the nearest gray head.

Since World War II, D.C. has never had an MLB team finish first or second. It’s actually uglier than that. Since 1945, no Washington team has finished with the third-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-, seventh- or even eighth-best record in the entire sport. In the 1950s, two teams were ninth; in the ’60s one was 13th; and after a 33-year void, this century has seen two clubs that were 15th out of 30. Responses after such a wait can be extreme.

“We’ve draped our whole house with red plastic [tarps],” said Debra Lerner Cohen. “We’re painting the town red one house at a time.”

In their last 17 games, the Nats have gone 7-10 and saw their lead shrink from 8½ games to three. In a sense, those games, all against contenders, introduced an inexperienced team to September pressure. That’s good learnin’. As long as you end up winning. Otherwise, you learn what everyone already knows: That you’re vulnerable. And the memory you carry, and then must overcome, is the recollection of a huge collapse.

“When you’ve got a lead and you’re waiting to clinch, it’s in the air every day,” said reliever Craig Stammen, who faced six Phils and fanned them all swinging. “We’re all worn down. It’s like, ‘Let’s get it over with.’ This is a sigh of relief.”

For weeks, every game has felt the same. “We want to win. The team we play has to win,” LaRoche said. And desperation is an edge.

The aura of the winner never hurts, especially for young players like the red-hot Harper and emerging star shortstop Ian Desmond, reinforcing their own opinions about their abilities. How many more such celebrations does he want now, Harper was asked.

“Twenty more!” Harper said.

Those lessons of victory seldom hurt. Cal Ripken played for a World Series winner in his second season. His work ethic wasn’t subverted for 2,632 consecutive games.

What will this postseason bring? “A lot more of the same,” said LaRoche, smiling. “I tell the young players, ‘What we’ve been doing was good enough to get us here. Let’s not try harder now. We don’t have to be better.”

No Washington team for generations has been able to say those words. Someday, what may be remembered in this shocking jubilant season was that the Nationals, once ahead, didn’t fritter away their magical season but, instead, finished the job convincingly, going 19-12 after a team meeting in late August. Now, there is now an exclamation mark — of sorts — at the end of this joyous summer.

But it is not an “!” Instead, at long, long last, it is “1.”

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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