By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 1, 2007
PHILADELPHIA, Sept. 30 -- With the sun already low and the shadows long, Ryan Zimmerman leaned on a railing Sunday afternoon in the visiting dugout at Citizens Bank Park. Philadelphia Phillies reliever Brett Myers had already thrown his glove in the air in jubilation. His teammates had already joined him in the center of the diamond, bodies indiscernible in a massive human hug. A sellout crowd in a city that badly wants a winner mimicked the scene on the field.
Zimmerman watched for a moment, then turned to the crowd behind the dugout, and looked some more. The Phillies had, somehow, won the National League East title with a 6-1 victory over Zimmerman's Washington Nationals on the season's final day, and 90 minutes of postgame, beer-soaked celebrations were just beginning.
The Nationals, at some point, want not to be watching from an emptying dugout with flights home awaiting, with players and coaches preparing to scatter around the country till February. Rather, they want that same kind of celebration in front of the same kind of adoring crowd. They want it to be in Washington.
"I was talking to some of the guys before the game," Nationals Manager Manny Acta said. "I told them, 'This is what we play for.' "
Because of a remarkable turnaround in Philadelphia -- where the Phillies were seven games behind the New York Mets on Sept. 12, only to close with 13 wins in their last 17 games -- and an astounding failure by the Mets to win even two of their last seven games, the Phillies are in the postseason for the first time since 1993, the second since 1983. The only way the Phillies could wrap up the division Sunday was by beating the Nationals and having the Mets lose to the last-place Florida Marlins. That's precisely what happened.
"Unbelievable," Phillies center fielder Aaron Rowand said. "Just unbelievable."
The Nationals had a front-row seat in this race over the past two weeks, playing no other competition than the contending teams for the final 13 games. They beat the Mets five times in six games, but dropped five of seven to the Phillies -- basically deciding the division.
But they also gleaned something from it all, showing both teams that they weren't just going to allow either to waltz into the postseason. "They played us tough," Phillies General Manager Pat Gillick said. In turn, they watched how the Phillies performed, then noticed how good it felt to celebrate.
"A few years ago, they were in that same predicament," Dmitri Young, Washington's veteran first baseman, said in a quickly deserted Nationals clubhouse an hour after the game. "They had a talented team, they just needed a few pieces here and there. And boom, there it is. They fought every single day, all the way till the very end, and they're still celebrating out there. It's a beautiful thing."
They celebrated Sunday because 44-year-old left-hander Jamie Moyer -- he of the 6.16 ERA since the all-star break -- perplexed the Nationals with his version of soft-and-softer, allowing one unearned run in his 5 1/3 innings. They celebrated because right-hander Jason Bergmann, one of the players Washington believes might have a place on a better Nationals team in the future, arrived at the ballpark without his best arsenal, giving up three runs in three innings.
"I knew it was an important game, not just for the Phillies, but for the Mets, too," Bergmann said. "And I didn't perform. I didn't have my stuff. . . . I did not have a lot of fun out there."
The Phillies, however, did. By the time Nationals shortstop Felipe Lopez stepped into the batter's box to take Moyer's first pitch, the sellout crowd had already reacted to the jaw-dropping events from Queens, because the first-inning score -- Florida 7, New York 0 -- had just been posted. As slugging first baseman Ryan Howard said, "You couldn't help but look at the scoreboard."
The Phillies scored one off Bergmann in the first when Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins -- who was greeted with chants of "M-V-P! M-V-P!" each at-bat this weekend -- singled, stole second, stole third, then came home on Chase Utley's sacrifice fly. They scored two more in the third when Howard connected for a two-out, two-run single, and Bergmann didn't come back out for the fourth.
By the time Rollins stroked an RBI triple in a two-run sixth and Howard thundered his 47th homer of the year in the seventh, the division title seemed sealed -- not that the Phillies allowed themselves to think that way. Rollins was asked when it seemed locked up for a team that began the year 4-11, that didn't sit alone in first place until late Friday night.
"Truthfully?" Rollins said. "After the last out."
With the champagne and beer flowing in the home clubhouse -- a celebration that eventually spilled out onto the field and was shared with the fans -- the Nationals packed in a clubhouse in which the stereo remained off, in which quiet hugs and goodbyes were exchanged. But these last two weeks have fortified the Nationals' own belief in themselves.
"We were over .500 since the all-star break," Zimmerman said, noting a 37-37 second half. "It shows the future isn't too far away."
Whether that future is as bright as the Phillies' present will be determined in an offseason in which General Manager Jim Bowden must procure more talent.
"We're a team on the rise," Bergmann said. "I think we've played well enough against our division rivals in September, I think we can be considered a contender the next couple years. They're going to do some great things with this franchise."
In Philadelphia, those kinds of things played out right in front of the Nationals. So up-close, so personal, that anything might seem possible.