Fourth division title in six years was no small achievement

Because they have done this four times now in the last six years - and because each of the three previous times was followed by a first-round playoff exit - there’s a tendency to downplay the significance of what the Nationals have accomplished.

Yes, everybody hangs banners to commemorate division titles. But who really remembers or celebrates those in the long term?

nats high fives usa jerseys.jpgIt’s October success that makes real memories, and until the Nationals enjoy that they will feel like they have accomplished less than they should have accomplished.

But, with the postseason still three weeks away, and with Sunday’s National League East clinch still fresh on our minds, let’s give this achievement its due. Because this is no small achievement. And the architect of this franchise knows that better than anyone.

“It is not easy to win baseball games at the major league level,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “It is not easy to win division championships. To look at the amount of games that we’ve won, the amount of days we’ve been in first place, the amount of divisions that we’ve won, it’s really mindboggling to think about.”

Yes, it really is.

How many other MLB franchises have won four division titles in the last six years? Only one: the Dodgers, who (assuming they do actually win a couple more games this season) will have won five straight NL West crowns.

That’s select company. Shoot, the Nationals are one of only four franchises to simply have finished with a winning record in each of the last six seasons, joining the Dodgers, Yankees and Cardinals. (New York and St. Louis haven’t clinched that distinction yet, but each would require a colossal collapse to fail to reach 82 victories.)

And it’s not like the Nationals have barely squeaked into the postseason. They won the 2012 division by four games over the Braves but spent only 10 days all season out of first place (and all of those came in April and May). They won the 2014 title by 17 games, clinching in Game No. 150. They nearly went coast-to-coast in 2016, spending only four days in early May out of first place and clinching the title with a week to spare.

This run in 2017 may have been the most impressive of all. The Nationals spent four days in second place from April 12-15. Otherwise, they have resided exclusively in first place. They have held a double-digit lead every day since July 17. They now lead the Marlins by 20 games with 19 still to play, becoming the first MLB club to clinch this season by a longshot. No other team currently sports a magic number below seven.

“This year was very, very gratifying,” manager Dusty Baker said. “Because, I mean, even though it looked like we had a comfortable lead, it was still a struggle because the amount of personnel we had to bring in. A lot of guys from the minor leagues. And a lot of the top guys are hurt.”

Forty-nine different players have appeared in a game for the Nationals this season. That’s the most they’ve had in uniform during a season since 2009, when they lost 103 games.

And there was pressure on this particular team to win this year. The Nationals followed up their first two NL East titles with loads of expectations, only to come up well short and miss the playoffs all together. Now, for the first time, they’re heading to the postseason two years in a row.

“Any years in a row is good,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “But yeah, I think Dusty said something about that at the beginning of the year. He said we’d gone one year on, one year off, and wanted to make it a point to change things, to do what we did last year and continue that momentum.”

The Nationals will carry momentum into October. They’re playing some of their best baseball right now, having won 11 of their last 15 games. They’re currently on pace to win 100 games for the first time in franchise history. And with the once-indestructible Dodgers suddenly falling apart during a 10-game losing streak, the Nats are only four games back from the best record in the majors.

That inevitable National League Division Series matchup with the Cubs? It’s not so inevitable anymore. The Brewers and Cardinals have pulled to within two games of Chicago in the NL Central. And should the Nats catch the Dodgers for the best record, they’d wind up the NL’s No. 1 seed and actually play the wild card winner (most likely the Diamondbacks, Rockies or NL Central runner-up) in the NLDS.

Whoever they face three weeks from now, the Nationals fully recognize another early October departure won’t cut it.

“I get it,” Rizzo said. “We’re not satisfied. We want to do more. We expect to do more. Our expectations are higher, and we feel good about meeting those expectations.”

But there’s plenty of time to stress over the playoffs before they actually begin. Today, with the Nationals fortuitously off to recover from their clinching celebration, is a day to appreciate what this franchise has accomplished.

Four division titles in six years is worth appreciating.

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