PITTSBURGH - They weren't obvious to the naked eye, but they were there this afternoon, tucked away on the fringes of the visitors' clubhouse at PNC Park: boxes of champagne.
The Nationals know they'll be popping those things open at some point, perhaps as soon as tonight if they can beat the Pirates and the Phillies can beat the Mets at Citi Field.
Yet there weren't many other outward signs of the situation inside the clubhouse before tonight's series opener against Pittsburgh. Guys went about their usual business preparing for the game, nary a word being spoken about what's now at stake.
Dusty Baker attributed that to experience.
"There's a calm, I think, in the clubhouse," the manager said. "Because half the guys in there have been through this before. Some of the guys haven't. The real excitement will probably come from the guys that haven't been there before."
Indeed, a good number of the 38 active players on the Nationals' current roster were part of the club's previous division titles: 13 of them were a part of either the 2012 or 2014 clinchers, and seven of those were a part of both celebrations.
So there is an understanding, particularly among the veterans, that the National League East crown - while nice - isn't the ultimate goal.
"This is the first step in a four-step process," Baker said. "It's a giant step, when you play 162 games, to get there in the first place. Then the next step is the (National League Division Series). And then the next step after that is the National League Championship Series. And the next step after that is the World Series. I expected to be here. Now our next step is to get to the next level."
Given all that, does Baker expect a purposely muted celebration when the Nationals do clinch the NL East title?
"Nah, I don't mute a celebration," he said. "How do you do that? How do you tell somebody to celebrate a little bit? I'm sure the celebrations will intensify as we get to each level. Hey, let 'em celebrate."
Update: They've played four innings here tonight. The good news: The Nats jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the top of the second thanks to three doubles (Stephen Drew, Ryan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez) and a homer (Danny Espinosa). The bad news: Gonzalez has given all three runs back, two of them in the second and the other in the third. This, of course, has been a recurring theme for the lefty all season, and it's happened again tonight. And so this is a 3-3 game heading to the fifth. Meanwhile in Flushing, the Phillies have taken a 3-1 lead on the Mets. So that part of the clinch-tonight equation is working. It's up to the Nats to do their part now.
Update II: As he's done so often this season, Wilson Ramos came to the rescue. Ramos crushed a leadoff homer to right-center in the top of the sixth, greeting reliever Antonio Bastardo with authority. And then the Nats manufactured a tack-on run, capped by Jayson Werth's bases-loaded walk. And so they now lead 5-3 in the middle of the sixth. ... Unfortunately, the Mets have exploded for six runs in the bottom of the fifth at Citi Field, and so now they lead the Phillies 7-3. The champagne remains boxed up in the Nats clubhouse for now.
Update III: Make it 5-4 Nats after the Bucs got a run back in the bottom of the sixth against Koda Glover and Marc Rzepczynski. Fortunately, Blake Treinen once again played the role of fireman and pitched out of a jam to end the inning and keep his team ahead by the slimmest of margins. Meanwhile, the Phillies are trying to claw their way back in New York, now trailing 7-5 in the sixth.
Update IV: Oh, no. Not only did the Mets win, but the Nats just blew the lead in the bottom of the ninth. Mark Melancon blew his first save as a member of the Nationals, and he did it against his former team. With two outs and a man on first, Sean Rodriguez roped a line drive over Trea Turner's head in center field, bringing home the tying run. All of a sudden, this is a 5-5 game, going to the 10th. Unbelievable.
Update V: Nothing doing for the Nats in the top of the 10th. Melancon returned to pitch the bottom of the inning and retired the side. So we go to the 11th.
Update VI: It's over. Nats lose 6-5 in 11. Yusmeiro Petit gave up the winning run, allowing a two-out, bases-loaded single to rookie Jacob Stallings on a 3-2 pitch. The magic number remains two, with another shot at clinching tomorrow night.