PITTSBURGH — A few minutes after the Washington Nationals clinched their third National League East title, Jayson Werth stood off to the side of the visitors’ clubhouse at PNC Park, not soaked yet, hair pulled in a bun atop his head. While teammates a decade and a half younger bounced with booze and posed with selfie sticks, Werth sipped a beer.
“It’s a necessary step. This is step one,” said the eldest National, eyes scanning the clubhouse, as if trying not to miss a single detail.
“I think this is my eighth or ninth division title, and it never gets old . . . guys who haven’t done this, this means a lot to them. But this is just step one.”
Completing step one required 90 wins, eight months, 42 players, five new coaches, and a new manager.
Completing step one required 5 1/3 innings of near-spotless relief from 22-year-old Reynaldo Lopez and multi-hit nights from 37-year-old Werth, free-agent-to-be Wilson Ramos and unheralded clubhouse chemist Stephen Drew in a 6-1 win over the Pirates on Saturday night.
Completing step one also required some help from the Philadelphia Phillies, who had to beat the New York Mets to give the Nationals the division title. They had not done that by the time Blake Treinen recorded the final out, so the Nationals hustled through their handshakes and ran to the clubhouse to watch the Mets bat in the bottom of the ninth.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever rooted for the Phillies so hard,” said former Met Daniel Murphy, unable to play this week because of a strained gluteal muscle — though the Nationals would not have been able to win the division without him.
“I didn’t like a lot of these guys for a long time,” Murphy said. “To come together all of us, pulling in the same direction to accomplish a goal, it’s awesome. Words can’t explain how much fun this is.”
All night, eyes in the stands and in the dugout darted to the out-of-town scoreboard in right field where bright golden lights brought news from Murphy’s former home in New York. By the time those scoreboard lights came on, signaling the start of the game at Citi Field, the Nationals already led because Trea Turner, who would later bustle round the clubhouse with a selfie stick, initiated a three-run rally with a bunt single. About that time, a three appeared next to the letters “PHIL” on the right field wall scoreboard.
So it went for the first few innings, everything to plan, the Mets losing, the Nationals winning. Though Joe Ross did not last three innings, Lopez relieved him and held the Pirates down as the Nationals built their lead to five with the help of several Pirates errors. Meanwhile, the Phillies built theirs to 10.
“The way the Mets have been playing, you look up at the scoreboard and it’s 10-0,” said Ryan Zimmerman, a National from the start, subdued as always postgame. “At no point when it’s 10-0 did I feel comfortable, because they’ve been playing their butts off and they’re a good team. It’s weird to win out there and have to come in here and wait. But, hey, whatever it takes.”
Zimmerman, who once again hit the ball hard Saturday yet came away with an easily forgotten 0 for 4, has struggled this season.
So has Bryce Harper, at least relatively speaking, though as he dished hugs in a Katie Ledecky USA swim cap after the game, frustration seemed to have washed away.
Struggles, injuries, good streaks and bad did not stop them, thanks to contributions from Murphy, Turner, Ramos, third baseman Anthony Rendon and the rest of the champagne-and-beer soaked squad that ended up hollering indiscernibly during an exuberant team picture. With the exception of a handful of days in May, these Nationals have been in first place since the start.
“It was more of a team effort. It was everybody. Everybody contributed,” said Werth from his dry nook in the corner.
“You can look at everybody on the team and say that guy’s the reason why we’re here. That’s what good teams are about. We’ve got our potential MVP candidate. We’ve got our potential Cy Young award winner. But everybody’s contributed.”
That potential Cy Young award winner, Max Scherzer, danced on tables and sprayed beer, rapped in goggles while refusing to stop bouncing. The 32-year-old signed a seven-year deal before last season, the biggest in Nationals history, one that gave them a super-rotation of the century — or something like that. Things didn’t work out.
“We were all pissed,” Scherzer said. “I’m sure all the fans at home were pissed. I was pissed. Because we had a team we knew was capable of winning, and winning in the postseason, winning in October. I believe we have that team again.”
Scherzer was puffing a cigar as he said it, goggles pushed back on his head, unable to stand still. He and Werth and Zimmerman all seemed at peace somehow, not overly excited, not numb to it all, either.
“Tomorrow will be a nice hangover — a hell of a hangover actually,” Scherzer said. “But Monday, that’s the time to get hot. That’s how you win this whole thing. You’ve got to get hot.”
Nationals Manager Dusty Baker was shivering through a drenched undershirt, a giant pair of ski goggles, and a quarter hour of hugs after winning the sixth division title of his managerial career.
He joked with bullpen coach Dan Firova — “is this your first one?” Firova had never coached in the big leagues before. He embraced injured ace Stephen Strasburg, then Werth, then Harper, then everyone else. As he answered questions for reporters, some new dance-chant celebration broke out.
“Look at ’em!” he said, pausing whatever thought he had begun to make sure he didn’t miss it.
“I want them to celebrate tonight, then get it over with and get back to work,” Baker said. “This is the first step in a four-step process. We want to do this three more times, then hopefully be the world champions.”
About 20 minutes after the whole thing started, as his team jogged out to the field to prolong the celebration, Baker was already showered and changed into street clothes, ready to leave, ready for step two.