After a regular season full of tremendous highs and lows, injuries and unexpected production, the Washington Nationals fulfilled their destiny in winning the National League East divisional title for the third time in the last five seasons (2012, 2014).

Washington fans aren’t acclimated to sustained success.  With all of the changes in team leadership (former team managers Davey Johnson in 2012, Matt Williams in 2014 and current team manager Dusty Baker in 2016) during this run of excellence, Washington General Manager Mike Rizzo and his staff should be very proud of this team and the commitment to excellence that oozes from top to bottom.  Gone are the days of the Nationals being a national joke.  Today, the team is considered not just one of the best franchises in baseball, but in all of team sports.

Washington Nationals' Anthony Rendon scores the second of two runs on a bases loaded single by Stephen Drew off Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Ivan Nova in the first inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Washington Nationals’ Anthony Rendon scores the second of two runs on a bases loaded single by Stephen Drew off Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Ivan Nova in the first inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The previous two divisional titles, unfortunately, did not lead to much postseason success, since the Nationals suffered a heartbreaking National League Division Series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 in 2012 and a disappointing showing in 2014 against the eventual World Series Champion San Francisco Giants.  There were a number of holdovers from those previous two division winners, and a few new faces in the clubhouse this time. They all got to celebrate Saturday night, Sept. 24 in the visitor’s clubhouse in Pittsburgh’s PNC Park, as the Nationals beat the Pirates, 6-1, and then waited to see if the Phillies could hold on against the Mets in Citi Field.  Once the Phillies defeated the Mets, the party was on and popping in the visitors’ clubhouse.

In the team clubhouse, Baker explained, it was all business, with work to be done before anyone could start celebrating.

“I expected to be here,” Baker said. “Now our next step is to get to the next level.”

“There’s a calm, I think, in the clubhouse,” he said, “because half the guys in there have been through this before and some of the guys haven’t.

“The real excitement will probably come from the guys that haven’t been there before. But, this is a first step of a four-step process and it’s a giant step when you play 162 games in order to get there in the first place.”

Washington Nationals' Stephen Drew drives in two runs with a bases loaded single off Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Ivan Nova in the first inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Washington Nationals’ Stephen Drew drives in two runs with a bases loaded single off Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Ivan Nova in the first inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Players like ace pitcher Max Scherzer and baseman Daniel Murphy, specifically, signed on to Washington to win and win big.  Baker himself stated that being able to compete and win big was the main reason he decided to take the managerial position in Washington.

With Saturday’s win, the Nationals improved to 90-64 overall, earning their 12th win of the month, and leaving them three wins short of the monthly goal of 15 wins their manager set for them in Spring Training.

The Nationals handled their division rivals this season. They are 49-24 against the Braves, Marlins, Mets and Phillies. The worst the Nationals have done against a fellow NL East team is 8-8 against the Marlins.

That dominance kept Washington atop or near the top of the division lead all season. The furthest out of first place the Nationals have been (for days on which they played) is a half-game. That last happened May 11.

There are still things the team wants and needs to accomplish this final week of the regular season.  Murphy, who has been out for a week, must come back sharp if the team has any real aspirations of a World Series title.  The postseason rotation has to be finalized with the loss of pitcher Stephen Strasburg and lastly, the Los Angeles Dodgers are only 1.5 games behind the Nats for home-field advantage in the Division Series matchup.  Winning these last couple of games are paramount for said advantage.

But, for today, celebrate Nats fans!  A divisional title is not anything to sneeze at, and fans hope that Saturday night’s champagne in the locker room isn’t the last time bottles will be popped this season.

 

Dion Johnson

Special to the AFRO