The scoreboard, for nearly the entirety of Monday night at Nationals Park, displayed the home team trailing, no matter how badly a crowd of 35,387 wanted it to do otherwise. With every Washington Nationals hit — and there were few — the fans who gathered to watch a championship be nailed down screamed and cajoled. It was a scene unlike any other in the District for not a generation, but two or three.
But in the bottom of the eighth, with the Nationals trailing the Philadelphia Phillies, another piece of salient information appeared on the massive scoreboard to the left of center field. There, the crowd learned that the Pittsburgh Pirates were beating the Atlanta Braves. So the cheers that couldn’t be directed at the Nationals themselves instead went out to the Nationals’ situation, because if Atlanta lost, the Nationals would win the National League East, regardless. The players, in between pitches, began sneaking peeks at the out-of-town scoreboard.
“I’m surprised we still have nails right now,” left-hander Gio Gonzalez said.
It might seem an odd way to make history, but such history is earned over the grind of a season, not in one night. So when Nationals pitcher Drew Storen opened the ninth inning, a chant of, “Let’s Go Pirates!” built in portions of Washington’s ballpark. The Nationals’ celebration began not because of what happened on their own diamond, but because of what happened 250 miles away in Pittsburgh.
Word, though, travels fast nowadays. And at 9:45 p.m., as the Nationals came off the field to bat in the bottom of the ninth, Nationals Park erupted.
“Everybody started going nuts,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “So we started going nuts. I don’t even know if we knew.”
But it was apparent. The Braves lost. And in turn, the Nationals won.
So with half an inning remaining, a celebration exploded. Ryan Zimmerman pumped his fist and began embracing teammates as he worked his way down the dugout steps. The crowd, which in another situation would have endured the tension and frustration of a 2-0 loss to the Phillies, stood, full-throated. The scoreboard lights danced: “NL East Division Champs.”
In the front row near the Nationals’ dugout, members of the Lerner family, which bought the team in 2006 from Major League Baseball, hugged each other long and hard. The board then showed the patriarch, Theodore N. Lerner, watching and cheering in a suite just two weeks shy of his 87th birthday.
“A miracle!” Lerner’s wife, Annette, said later.
“A great organization has been put together,” Ted Lerner said. “We’re delighted they can enjoy it, and the city of Washington can enjoy it.”
As a native Washingtonian, a self-made real estate mogul, he must have dreamed of such a moment.
“No,” Lerner said. “Looked forward to it.”
“Since he was a little boy!” Annette Lerner added.
It is something other Washingtonians have looked forward to for just as long, but perhaps without Lerner’s confidence. This city has as star-crossed a history with the national pastime as any in the country. The players who authored this season, from rookie sensation Bryce Harper to Cy Young award candidate Gonzalez to mainstay Zimmerman, were only privy to the most recent misery here, teams that lost more than 100 games in 2008 and 2009.
“You know how we got this team,” said Lerner’s son Mark, the public face of ownership. “It was below sea level, to say the least. Deeper than the Dead Sea.
“My dad said we’re going to build this thing the right way for the long-term. He was the most patient of all of us. Look what you’ve got now. And it’s going to be like this for years to come.”
But there were more immediate issues Monday night. What Atlanta’s loss ensured for this year’s Nationals: a best-of-five National League Division Series starting on Saturday or Sunday, Washington’s first postseason baseball game in 79 years. What the victory ensured for Washington’s fans, some of whom have long memories of the bad baseball played by the Senators — who departed once in 1961, were replaced, then left again in 1971 — and the no-baseball period before the Nationals arrived, was the chance to put that sorry past behind and replace it, for perhaps the next month, with the playoffs.
“I know a lot of guys have been through a lot here,” said Werth, whose signing as a free agent before 2011 signaled that, internally, the Nationals believed they were close to contending. “It’s great for all of them, for everyone in there.”
Not long after, Zimmerman stood on the field, ski goggles draped around his neck to protect his eyes from the sting of champagne, worn at the advice of Werth. He is the kid the Nationals made their first-ever draft selection, back in 2005 out of the University of Virginia. He is the one who signed not one, but two contract extensions to stay with what looked to be a hapless franchise. He is the player whose picture adorns the back of the mammoth scoreboard.
“I love this town, obviously,” Zimmerman said. “They gave me a chance, took a chance on me at a young age, and they let me come right in and put me right in the middle of it.”
The middle of it Monday night was bedlam. After the players retreated to the home clubhouse, where they first started dousing each other, they came back out on the field, and the true celebration began. Gonzalez sprinted into the outfield. A whole crew headed down the left field line, high-fiving the crowd and each other, unbridled joy all around.
“What a journey,” Mark Lerner said.
There is pain in Washington’s baseball past. But Monday night showed there is both possibility and pleasure in its present, and its future.