PITTSBURGH - The National League East lead has come surprisingly easily to the Nationals, who after a brief, four-day stint in early May have held a firm grasp on first place in the division every single moment since.
The actual clinching of that title? That is requiring a bit more work and patience than hoped.
Two things needed to happen tonight for the Nationals to pop the champagne corks. Neither happened.
The Nats were in position to do their part, up a run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. But Mark Melancon, making his first appearance at PNC Park since the Pirates traded him two months ago, blew his first save as a member of the Nationals on Sean Rodriguez's line drive over Trea Turner's head in center field. Rookie Jacob Stallings then lined a bases-loaded single off long reliever Yusmeiro Petit with two outs in the bottom of the 11th to give Pittsburgh a stunning 6-5 victory.
Moments before Melancon blew his first save in 13 attempts, the Mets completed a 10-5 victory over the Phillies at Citi Field, failing to do their part to contribute to a Nationals celebration here.
And so the magic number to clinch the NL East remains two. They'll come back Saturday night and give it another shot, needing the same combination of events to earn the right to pop open the champagne.
All that was left was for Melancon to finish it in the ninth. Earlier in the day, the recently traded closer admitted it would be "kind of ironic" if he wound up recording the final out of a clincher in this ballpark. He'll have to hope he gets another chance to do it Saturday.
Melancon was close to doing it tonight, but with two outs and a man on first he gave up a scorched liner to Rodriguez. Turner, the rookie center fielder still learning the position on the fly, at first broke in on the ball. By the time he recovered, it was too late. The ball sailed over his glove and rolled to the wall, the tying run scampering home as the crowd of 29,513 roared with delight after a game with few previous highlights for the home team.
Though there was no outward discussion of what was potentially at stake tonight, there were obvious signs in the Nationals clubhouse this afternoon. Extra front office employees were invited to make the four-hour drive up Interstate 70 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike to be here in person. Principal owner Mark Lerner and members of his family joined them here. The radio broadcasters tested out remote microphones in the clubhouse for potential postgame interviews amid the celebration.
And then, of course, there were the not-so-conspicuous boxes off in a corner of the clubhouse, boxes containing the all-important beverages required for celebrations of this type. The only question was whether there would be reason to crack open those boxes.
The Nationals gave the clubhouse staff reason to start thinking about it in the top of the second inning, when they rode three doubles and an Espinosa homer to a quick 3-0 lead. But it's one thing to take a lead, it's another thing to hold a lead, and Gio Gonzalez has struggled to do the latter all season.
So it was again that Gonzalez, handed a three-run lead, gave it all back. Four singles in the bottom of the second brought home two runs, then an Andrew McCutchen triple and RBI groundout by Jung Ho Kang in the bottom of the third brought home the tying run.
It was another laborious evening for Gonzalez, who needed 91 pitches to complete five innings of three-run ball. If he was trying to prove he deserves to be the Nationals' No. 3 starter in the playoffs, he did not deliver.
Yet Gonzalez did find himself in line for his 12th win, thanks to the offensive exploits of his batterymate. Ramos opened the top of the sixth with a towering blast to the back row of the bleachers in right-center, an absolute poke for the Nationals catcher, who now has 22 homers on the season, perhaps none more significant than this one.
And when Jayson Werth drew a bases-loaded walk later in the inning, the Nats had themselves a 5-3 lead and some more cushion for their bullpen. They needed it, because the Pirates got one of the runs back in the bottom of the sixth off Koda Glover and Marc Rzepczynski.
Now holding the slimmest of margins, with the Mets and Phillies engaged in another wild affair in Flushing, the clubhouse employees could only wait and watch with everyone else, waiting to know whether the champagne would be opened or not on this Friday night.