Sep 20

Remembering the Nats’ first postseason clincher

As the Nationals play the second leg of their final road trip this season, fans are still wondering when they will curly wclinch the National League East title.

Barring an extended losing streak, the Nats are likely to celebrate their third division title in five years in a visitors clubhouse, in front of another team’s fans. That might be bittersweet for many Nats fans, but they can still remember some celebrations that came at home.

In fact, it was four years ago Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2012, that the Nats clinched the city’s first postseason baseball berth in several generations. The 4-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers guaranteed the Nats at least spot in the NL Wild Card Game, and postseason baseball in the nation’s capital for the first time since 1933.

Ross Detwiler held the Dodgers to one run on three hits and a walk over six innings. Ryan Zimmerman doubled home Bryce Harper with the first run in the bottom of the third and scored the second on a wild pitch. An inning later, Danny Espinosa doubled home Ian Desmond, and scored on a sacrifice fly by Kurt Suzuki.

Christian Garcia and Ryan Mattheus held the Dodgers scoreless through the seventh and eighth innings, and Drew Storen struck out the side in the ninth for his third save. He had been injured most of the season, and had only recently taken over the closer duties from Tyler Clippard. After Storen fanned Hanley Ramirez on three pitches to end the game, the celebration in the stands began.

The festivities in the Nats’ clubhouse were more low key. Manager Davey Johnson, who had guided the 1986 Mets to the World Series title and also taken the Cincinnati Reds and Baltimore Orioles to the postseason, was not impressed by the prospect of being in a one-game playoff to advance to the Division Series. The players sipped champagne, but they would have to wait to cut loose.

That opportunity came on Oct. 1, again at home. This time, the Nationals actually lost to the Philadelphia Phillies, but by the time the game was over, nobody cared. Word came in the bottom of the ninth inning that the Atlanta Braves had lost, and the inning played out amidst a celebratory atmosphere. After it was over, the Phillies had the ritual congratulatory handshakes amongst themselves, out while the Nats gathered in the clubhouse to soak themselves in bubbly and celebrate the city’s first division title ever and the franchise’s first since the strike-shortened 1981 season.

Of course, success beyond that has eluded the Nats so far, although the fans have not had to wait generations for more division titles or opportunities to advance.

Whenever the Nats do clinch this season, it would be nice to do so with a win, so the celebration would seem all the more genuine. But what’s most important is that they continue to play clean, solid baseball as they head into October and pursue their first postseason series victory.