From the sting of 2015 to division champs of 2016

PITTSBURGH - Max Scherzer stood off to one side of the now-trashed visitors clubhouse at PNC Park, soaked in champagne and beer, puffing on a cigar, a man enjoying every moment of this celebration.

The right-hander has been a division champion before, five times in the last six years, to be exact. It's that one exception to the rule, though, that lingered with him. Just as it lingered for everyone associated with a 2015 Nationals club that saw a season of so much promise go up in flames.

And so when his team clinched the 2016 National League East title this evening, by virtue of a 6-1 victory over the Pirates and then a bite-your-nails 10-8 loss by the Mets to the Phillies minutes later, Scherzer finally was able to forget about the pain of 2015.

"This one is personal to me because of last year and how we didn't finish strong," he said. "That really stung the whole offseason. I hated that. I hated last offseason. So for us to be able to come out there and take care of business is huge. It's huge. Because this is the stuff that it takes to put yourself in a place to win the World Series. And that's the goal now: to win the World Series."

Nats-NL-East-champs-2016-sidebar.jpgIndeed, the Nationals have much loftier goals than a division crown. You want to talk about stinging losses, just ask anyone who was part of the 2012 and 2014 clubs that lost the NLDS in crushing fashion.

That goal, however, can be put aside for at least a day. On this night, the Nationals made sure they celebrated an achievement worth celebrating.

"These things are always fun," first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "Whatever team it is, the group of guys it is, it's so hard to do this at this level. Hopefully nobody takes it for granted and can enjoy it every single time because this is pretty special."

The Nationals very nearly didn't get the opportunity to pop open the champagne bottles tonight. They took care of their business with relative ease, jumping out to a 3-0 lead in the top of the first, then expanding it to 6-1 in the fourth, then riding rookie Reynaldo Lopez's 5 1/3 innings of scoreless relief to victory.

But there was another part of the clinching equation: The Phillies needed to beat the Mets. They seemed to be well on their way to doing just that, storming to a 10-0 lead in the fourth inning at Citi Field. Insurmountable deficit, right? The Nats sure didn't assume so.

"At no point when I saw 10-0 did I feel comfortable," Zimmerman said. "'Cause they've been playing their butts off."

Sure enough, the Mets started chipping away. It was 10-4 in the fifth, then 10-6 in the sixth, then 10-7 in the eighth, then 10-8 in the ninth with the tying runners on base and the winning run improbably at the plate.

By this point, the Nationals were watching on TV inside their clubhouse, all the lockers covered in plastic, all the bottles of alcohol in giant tubs of ice, ready to go. Finally, when Travis d'Arnaud grounded back to the mound for the final out, the celebration began.

"I don't know if I've ever rooted for the Phillies so hard," said Daniel Murphy, a year ago the Mets' postseason hero now a division champion again with their rivals.

There may have been a harrowing moment or two in the last few days, but truth be told, the Nationals had been in control of the division the entire season. They spent only four days out of first place, way back in early May, and their lead hadn't dipped below seven games since Aug. 9.

This was a season of remarkable consistency. They've posted a winning record every month they've played.

"I think it just shows you how much depth we have," Zimmerman said. "We've had some guys get banged up, like every team does. And whenever someone has to step in, it doesn't seem like we lose a beat. A couple pitchers go down, others step up. Like Lopez tonight throwing however many innings he threw. That goes back to the front office, the farm system and obviously building a big league roster that can sustain the injuries that you're going to have throughout a year. I think that helped us stay so consistent."

There were some significant individual achievements along the way, from Murphy's run at NL MVP honors, to Scherzer's surge toward a possible Cy Young Award, to Wilson Ramos' breakthrough campaign to Trea Turner's electrifying arrival in midsummer.

But this team also has had balance throughout. Five players have hit 20 homers, and Anthony Rendon could join the group if he connects twice more in the final eight games. Scherzer may win the Cy Young, but Tanner Roark and Stephen Strasburg each have 15 wins. Stephen Drew, Clint Robinson and Chris Heisey all have become significant contributors off the bench.

"It was everybody," left fielder Jayson Werth said. "Everybody contributed. You can look at everybody on the team and say: 'That guy's the reason why we're here.' And that's what good teams are about. We've got our potential MVP candidate. We've got our potential Cy Young Award winner. But everybody's contributed. It was a lot of fun. This season's been a lot of fun, but I'm hoping we got a little more than a month to play."

That's most certainly the goal now. Three division titles in five years is nice. But it won't mean much if not one of them leads to a deep postseason run.

The Nationals, though, will worry about that tomorrow. Tonight, they're celebrating this accomplishment, and in the process officially wiping all memories of 2015 from their hard drives.

"We were all pissed," Scherzer said. "If you weren't, then you're not a ballplayer. It's just the way it is. I'm sure all the fans at home were pissed. I was pissed. Everybody was pissed. Because we had a team that we knew was capable of winning, and of winning in the postseason, winning in October. I believe we have that team again. And I'm excited to go with these guys back there."

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