Chipping away at the magic number, enjoying a special debut

The Nationals’ lead over the Braves in the NL East is now 7 1/2 games, the highest it’s been this season.

They’re back to 31 games above .500, tying the high-water mark for the year. Their magic number to win the division is 20 with 27 games left on their schedule.

By no means are the Nats looking ahead or counting their chickens. But they are starting to realize the end is in sight.

You go into the clubhouse postgame and you’ll notice the Braves game put up on every TV in sight. During a game, players are even starting to keep tabs on what Atlanta is doing, knowing every half-game the Nats pick up puts them that much closer to their goal of clinching the division.

“When you start seeing the number of games you need to win and they need to lose, you start peeking up there,” Adam LaRoche said. “Again, it’s not going to change what we do. But we’ve got a chance to do something, so of course you do.”

zimmerman-grey-highfive-sidebar.jpgSince that five-game losing streak which ended a week ago, the Nationals have gotten right back on track. They’ve won six of their last seven games and have put the memory of their five-game slide behind them.

“I think we laughed it off the day we won,” Ian Desmond said. “I think teams run into stretches like that and hopefully that’s the last one that we have. The team that we have, we understand that we’re capable of winning any ballgame and it’s nice to see that we’re playing up to our potential again.”

Last night, one of the special moments for many of the guys in the clubhouse was getting to see reliever Christian Garcia make his major league debut. At 27 years old and having come off two Tommy John surgeries, Garcia’s road to the majors was a long one, but that might have made the experience last night all the more memorable for the right-hander.

He faced just one hitter and threw just three pitches. His fastball topped out at 96 mph in getting Cubs catcher Welington Castillo to pop up to end the sixth inning.

“It was awesome,” Garcia said after the game, his smile nearly as wide as the Nationals’ clubhouse. “I can’t even explain how awesome it was. Going out there, when I left the bullpen, I was running, I was just looking up in the stands, looking at all the people and stuff. Just taking it in. When I got out there, on top of the mound, I was talking to (catcher Jesus) Flores. He was asking me what I like to throw, what signs. Without taking a breath, I talked for like a minute. He was like, ‘Hey man, take a breath.’ I took a deep breath and had fun.

“That was the main thing, I told myself to enjoy it and have fun. After all the years and stuff, I’m not going to go up there and get nervous. I’m going to go up there and just enjoy it, have fun and put a smile on my face.”

A former third-round pick of the Yankees, the hard-throwing Garcia had all the talent to make it to the major leagues years ago. The medical setbacks (he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2006, surgery to shave a bone spur in 2009 and then another Tommy John in 2010) made his journey a whole lot tougher, but his faith in himself never wavered.

“I dream big,” he said. “When I do things, I try to put all my effort into it and do it to the best of my abilities. I always thought one day it would happen. I didn’t think it would take this long, but it did and I appreciate it and I’m very humble and very excited to be here and I thank the Nationals for giving me the opportunity.”

After the game, Garcia looked down at his phone and saw over 100 congratulatory calls and text messages. He had two fresh baseballs in his locker, one from his first major league pitch, one from the first out recorded in his big league career. Both, he said, were going to his parents.

“It’s still not real to me,” Garcia said. “You grow up as a kid when you’re sitting in the stands watching all those baseball players playing, and you never picture yourself actually being one of those guys. Now it’s reality, I’m not just sitting watching, I’m actually playing.”

He’s playing in a pennant race, entering meaningful games and contributing to a team which is getting closer to a division title by the day.

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