The Washington Nationals were one win away from clinching the NL East entering Monday night's game with the visiting Philadelphia Phillies. One win, or one Braves' loss. Atlanta and Pittsburgh started a three-game set in PNC Park tonight, so scoreboard-watching Nationals' skipper Davey Johnson and his team were keeping a close eye on the out-of-town updates as they tried to take the first game from the Phillies and clinch the division in Nationals Park.
From the start this year, Davey Johnson believed his team could accomplish exactly what the Washington Nationals did tonight in the nation's capital. In a teleconference with the D.C. press corps in late October 2011, after it was officially announced that he would return to the bench for at least another season, the Nats' manager was asked what his ultimate goal was in 2012? "A pennant," Johnson stated confidently, "Winning the pennant. Winning the division. Winning the National League. I couldn't have said that last Spring. I didn't think the talent was ready, but after being there and seeing the progress that some of the young players made, I think we definitely can contend and I would be sorely disappointed if we didn't do just that."
The Nats took over first place in the NL East for good on May 22nd with a win over the Philadelphia Phillies. Washington held first place in the division for all but ten days this season and in spite of the fact that Atlanta was on their heels all summer long, climbing to within 2.0 games of the division lead as late as the first week of August, the Nationals fought the Braves off, winning when things got desperate, taking series all year and tonight clinching the division for the first time since baseball returned to the nation's capital in 2005.
The 1924 Washington Senators, the first D.C.-based team to win a pennant, experienced many of the same challenges on their way to the first of three division crowns won by a D.C.-based team before the Nationals this year. The Washington Post's Frank H. Young wrote at the time, on September 29, 1924, that it was the New York Yankees then who were playing the role the Braves filled this season, pursuing the '24 Senators for the American League crown all summer long, but it was first year skipper Bucky Harris that made the difference for that year's team according to the WaPost writer, much as Davey Johnson has influenced the 2012 Nats' rapid ascent:
"'Had there been anything 'yellow' in the Washington make-up, the Yankees would now have their fourth consecutive championship tucked away, for twice they have been on their heels right along, but Harris and his men on all occasions when necessary have been able to rise to dizzy heights and shake them off."
There wasn't anything "yellow" about the 2012 Nationals' make-up either. They may have won the division with a Braves' loss, but it was the 96 wins that came before Monday night that helped them claim the NL East crown. While the Nationals' marketing department has done wonders with the whole #Natitude campaign, it does accurately described the prevailing aura of confidence Davey Johnson's instilled in his players since he took over midstream last summer.
The Nats' manager saw this coming when few others did. Jayson Werth told reporters last night, however, that his manager wasn't completely alone in thinking the Nationals could accomplish what they did this season. The former Phillies' outfielder signed a 7-year/$126M dollar deal with Washington before the 2011 campaign because he bought into the plan D.C. GM Mike Rizzo and the Nationals' ownership had for the franchise. "Maybe I didn't totally expect it totally in year two," Werth told reporters last night as the team celebrated on the field in Nationals Park, "But I was expecting it by year three. So, did it come early? Maybe. I don't know, but after September of last year I was confident it could happen."
Last night it did happen. The Nationals lost to the Phillies, 2-0, but before the game was over they knew that they had won the division. Fans in the park followed the Braves' game with the Pirates on their phones and on the out-of-town scoreboard and reacted immediately when the last out was recorded in PNC Park and Pittsburgh had won. The celebration began in the Nats' dugout and spread to the stands as everyone figured out what had happened. The D.C. faithful were finally rewarded with the NL East crown. The celebration overshadowed the end of the game. Thousands of fans remained in Nats Park to celebrate with their team. Inside the Nats' clubhouse the music blared, champagne showered down on players, coaches, owners and the media alike. Davey Johnson and the Nationals brought winning baseball to D.C.