As the crowd of 37,638 rose to its feet in the ninth inning, assuming a position it would keep the entire way through Drew Storen's 42nd save of the season, it was easy to peek into the future and envision what things might be like if the Nationals continue the progress they've made toward the end of this season.
The only discrepancy between what happened on Sunday and what the Nationals hope for in the future was the implication of the result: instead of putting themselves in playoff position, the Nationals had to be satisfied with dealing another blow to the Atlanta Braves' postseason chances. But after a 3-0 win over the Braves on Sunday, there was a belief in the Nationals' clubhouse that the situation could be flipped by next year.
"It was a pretty special experience, coming in and getting that kind of an ovation," Storen said. "I've been saying all year - we've just got to show them we can win."
The way the Nationals played on Sunday certainly helped their case. Ross Detwiler threw six shutout innings, finishing his year with a 13 1/3-inning shutout streak. That led to one of Henry Rodriguez's most dominant performances of the year - he hit 101 mph on the radar gun and struck out the side on 11 pitches, freezing Jack Wilson with a sinister 88-mph slider for a called strikeout to end the inning.
Michael Morse hit a two-run homer to right center on an 0-2 pitch, putting the Nationals up 3-0 and earning his first-ever curtain call. And by the end of the day, they were within two games of .500, with a chance to finish with a winning record if they sweep the Marlins.
General manager Mike Rizzo said before Sunday's game that he thinks the Nationals are a leadoff hitter and a pitcher away from contending next year, and it's safe to assume the team will be aggressive again this winter. Signing Jayson Werth to a $126 million deal last winter virtually locked the Nationals into spending money in the future; they weren't going to admittedly overpay for a 32-year-old outfielder and then change course.
If they can add a fixture to the rotation and a hitter who can put an on-base percentage of at least .350 at the top of the lineup, it's not tough to see the Nationals as a playoff darkhorse next year.
They certainly had their fans dreaming about that possibility as they left the park on Sunday for the final time in 2011.
"I don't want to say there was no talent when I first got here, but there's definitely a lot more now," Detwiler said. "All the minor league teams are playing with a lot more consistency, winning championships down there. People are just getting a lot better at every level."