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.