At 4:16 p.m. Sunday, as the Nationals walked off the field at Nationals Park following a 4-2 loss to the Miami Marlins, the Atlanta Braves took the mantle of National League East champions from Washington. That the Braves would claim the division title felt like a foregone conclusion for weeks, but they couldn’t celebrate until they had mathematically clinched. With a 92-63 record and nine games up on the Nationals, the Braves did just that on Sunday. They could celebrate their first NL East pennant since 2005 and 12th overall.
The Nationals’ reign atop the NL East was short-lived. Five months ago, most felt the Nationals had too much talent not to repeat. Now, the Nationals must face the harsh and unchangeable realization about their season.
“They’ve had a good year,” Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said of the Braves. “They balanced out their lineup. They were more left-handed last year. Pretty good depth in the bullpen. They were tougher to get matchups against because of the addition of [Chris] Johnson and the Uptons. Before they didn’t really have any right-handed presence to speak of, even on the bench. But if we did the things we were capable of, we woulda been right there.”
The Braves have led the NL East essentially from Day One. They took sole possession of first place on April 7 and haven’t looked back. They posted the best intra-division record; 44-28 against NL East teams. They overhauled their lineup in the offseason to address their lack of right-handed batters. Their pitching, specifically the bullpen and its depth, kept them afloat. They used a hot start and scorching summer run to build a comfortable division lead. The Nationals took the last series of the season, but the Braves stomped them all season long. They beat the Nationals in 13 of 19 meetings and outscored them 73-49.
“We thought we had a chance, obviously, to contend to win the division,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “We think we have a chance every year. And we had a good team. And for whatever reason, we just got off to a slow start and they had that run in the middle of the year when they went something crazy, 18-2 or 16-4, something like that, and built that huge lead. But they’re a good team. You don’t win as many games as they did without being a good team. This year they get it, and we’ll be going for it again next year. It’s just the way it goes.”