The Nationals have this division-title thing down pat at this point, having now done it four times in six years. What they have not yet perfected is the art of clinching a division title on the field in front of their home fans.
The 2012 National League East crown was achieved when the Braves lost in Pittsburgh while the Nats played the top of the ninth against the Phillies. The 2014 NL East was wrapped up with a win on the road in Atlanta. The 2016 NL East title wasn’t official until the Mets lost at Citi Field, leaving the Nationals to watch on TV from their clubhouse in Pittsburgh.
And then came today’s proceedings, which brought an entirely new method to the clinching madness.
The Nationals did everything in their power to do it the traditional way, riding eight scoreless innings from Stephen Strasburg and clutch hits from Trea Turner and Victor Robles to a 3-2 victory over the Phillies. But because they played that game in a tidy 2 hours, 16 minutes - their fastest game of the season - they were left to retreat to the clubhouse to watch the Braves and Marlins finish up in Atlanta while a few thousand fans from the original crowd of 32,627 watched on the scoreboard.
That game was tied 5-5 in the seventh when the Nationals’ game ended. A short while later, the Marlins held an 8-5 lead heading to the bottom of the ninth. The situation was not exactly prime for a celebration.
“Honestly ... I was about to go to sleep in my office,” manager Dusty Baker said. “These guys, I heard them out here, and I was watching the game. But it looked like we were going to have to wait until Tuesday.”
Baker wasn’t alone in accepting that likely scenario.
“When Miami went up three, I got dressed,” outfielder Jayson Werth said. “I was like, ‘Ahhhhh.’ I said, ‘I’m going to double-jinx this,’ and got dressed.
And then, something funny happened. Freddie Freeman scored on Tyler Flowers’ ground ball to cut the deficit to 8-6. And then with two outs in the ninth, Rio Ruiz singled through the left side of the infield to bring home Nick Markakis and Lane Adams. Just like that, tie game, with extra innings on the way.
In the stands at Nationals Park, fans roared back to life. In the clubhouse, players perked back up, dug around for their champagne-proof goggles and started doing the unthinkable: They started openly rooting for the Braves, right down to participating in their trademark chant.
“We were having fun with it,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “Gio played the Tomahawk Chop song. What can you do? You’re just waiting around to see.”
And wait they did. Through a scoreless 10th inning. Through a scoreless top of the 11th. Most of the fans who stayed after the Nationals’ game ended continued to stay to watch extra innings on the scoreboard. They groaned when Giancarlo Stanton made a leaping catch at the right field wall. They danced to pump-up music during commercial breaks. A few, too, did the Tomahawk Chop.
What was that like waiting it all out? Nerve-wracking? Fun? Annoying?
“We were kind of on an emotional high, and then to have to sit there and wait, that was tough, man,” closer Sean Doolittle said. “What a crazy game.”
“It was OK with me,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “I knew we had a game Tuesday. We were going to clinch this thing eventually.”
Why wait, though? And thanks to a previously anonymous Braves outfielder named Lane Adams, they didn’t have to wait much longer.
With a man on in the bottom of the 11th, the 27-year-old Adams, in his 76th career major league plate appearance, pounced on Vance Worley’s first pitch and crushed it to left field. Worley, who was in West Palm Beach this spring trying to make the Nationals roster as a long reliever and emergency starter, spun around to watch. Who knew he’d eventually help Washington win a division title, albeit a little differently than anyone would have guessed?
As Adams rounded the bases for only the third time in his career, the crowd at Nationals Park burst into celebration, the players in the clubhouse hooted and hollered. The game here had ended more than 90 minutes earlier, but that didn’t dampen the mood once it became official.
“Just happy that Adam, or Lane or something like that ... I don’t know,” Bryce Harper said. “Just happy he hit the homer and fired us up and now we’re doing what we’re doing.”
After a few minutes celebrating on their own inside, the entire Nationals roster and staff emerged from the dugout and joined their fans to celebrate together, tossing goodies into the stands, finding family members to embrace. Several made a point to walk up to principal owner Mark Lerner, confined to a wheelchair after having his left leg amputated last month due to cancer, and give him an especially poignant hug.
“I didn’t think there’d be that many people there,” said Doolittle, 17-for-17 in save opportunities since his July acquisition. “That says a lot about the fans and the way they support this team. They’ve been awesome to me ever since I got here. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. But it was awesome.”
After several minutes on the field, the players returned to the clubhouse, where they participated in the traditional champagne-and-beer celebration for the fourth time in six years.
Maybe they didn’t arrive at that point in traditional fashion. But that didn’t make the moment any less sweet. Even if it required another wardrobe change at the last moment.
“Sure enough, I had to get changed when that guy hit the walk-off,” Werth said with a laugh. “All part of the plan, right?”