Mike Rizzo doubled over amid the chaos of the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse. As the team celebrated clinching a wild-card berth on Tuesday night, pitching coach Paul Menhart and reliever Tanner Rainey had sneaked up behind the general manager moments before Budweiser from tall, red cans began pouring onto Rizzo’s head. Menhart and Rainey emptied their double-fisted bottles and clapped their boss’s boss on the back, themselves symbols of choices he had made at this season’s fork in the road to get this team here.

The Nationals fired pitching coach Derek Lilliquist in early May and replaced him with Menhart, who had worked in the organization for 14 years. The bullpen incrementally improved from its historically bad start, and it helped when Rizzo called up Rainey from Class AAA Fresno later that month. The young right-hander wasn’t someone the Nationals envisioned relying on out of spring training; he seemed more like a long-shot after totaling seven innings and a 24.43 ERA in his first shot at the major leagues last year in Cincinnati. But Rainey slowly, steadily became an integral member of the bullpen who took the ball whenever his team needed him to, one of the few options Manager Dave Martinez could trust.

Now they were here. This seemed improbable at best when the team started 19-31. Rizzo credited the poor start to key injuries and general underperformance.

“It was a situation where I think a lot of teams would have folded,” he said. “A lot of teams, the clubhouse would have been fractured. But Davey held this thing together, and I give him a lot of credit for that.”

What saved the season, Rizzo added, was talent. The Nationals had a “playoff-caliber roster” and a manager who cared for his clubhouse, and the players bought in to his message. Then they finally started playing as they were expected to.

“There’s a bunch of professional players in here that never pointed fingers, never gave anonymous quotes and tried to blow up the clubhouse,” Rizzo said. “It’s something that I won’t forget as a GM, because it’s a special group of guys.”

Last year, the Nationals traded reliever Brandon Kintzler at the deadline amid a lost season because, according to people with knowledge of the situation, team officials believed he was the anonymous source for a Yahoo story which described the clubhouse culture as “a mess.”

This is the team’s fifth postseason berth in eight seasons and while Rizzo didn’t want to compare this team to any others — “I hate comparing teams” — he admitted that stumbling out of the gate made this a little more satisfying. He called it “really a remarkable thing” the team played as poorly as it did and still stuck together but joked “it would’ve been easier not to start out that way.”

"When you get to put plastic down and pour beer over each other, it’s a special season,” he said. “We don’t take that for granted. These are things that a lot of teams wish they were doing.”

The general manager acknowledged “all we’ve done is clinch a spot to get into the playoffs,” but he was unabashed about the team’s boozy dance party. They have the “puncher’s chance” they wanted. With three wins in two days over the rival Philadelphia Phillies, they seem to be rounding back into a playoff-caliber team. The games are still important — the Nationals hold a one-game lead on the Milwaukee Brewers for home-field in the wild-card game — and Rizzo praised what Martinez preached to get the team here.

“Davey said over and over, today’s the biggest game of the year and we want to go 1-0 today. It wasn’t just lip service,” he said. “We really felt that way. We attacked every game that way. And I think that may serve us well as this one-game thing may turn into something more.”


Phillies (79-78)

Cesar Hernandez 2B

Bryce Harper RF

Rhys Hoskins 1B

Brad Miller LF

Jean Segura SS

Adam Haseley CF

Scot Kingery 3B

Andrew Knapp C

Drew Smyly P

Nationals (88-69)

Brian Dozier 2B

Adam Eaton RF

Howie Kendrick 1B

Juan Soto LF

Asdrubal Cabrera 3B

Yan Gomes C

Victor Robles CF

Wilmer Difo SS

Aníbal Sánchez P