Nationals have chance to clinch NL East title tonight

From the moment they were eliminated from playoff contention 363 days ago, this was the Nationals' primary focus.

They reshaped their roster over the winter. They fired one manager, almost hired another, then wound up with yet another in the end. They watched key free agents depart. They made a couple of calculated moves to address those vacancies.

They reported to spring training in Viera with a clear goal in mind. They opened the season with an extra-inning win and never really looked back, despite some legitimate bumps along the way. Aside from four days in early May - only four days when they trailed by a measly half-game - the Nationals have resided in first place in the National League East the entire season.

And tonight they can officially ensure that's where they'll end the season.

With a magic number of two - the Mets beat the Phillies last night in a wild, 12-inning game to keep that number intact - the Nationals could clinch the division title tonight with a victory in Pittsburgh and a New York loss to Philly.

Whether it happens tonight, tomorrow or Sunday, or even extends all the way to Monday at home against Matt Williams and the Diamondbacks, the finish line finally is right before the Nationals' eyes.

This is what they hoped to achieve way back in February. Yes, they have even loftier goals than a division title, but you can't win in October until you first get to October. And given the crap shoot that is the one-game wild card, the best way to ensure a real shot at postseason success is through a division championship.

Murphy-Werth-Celebrate-White-Sidebar.jpgIt has felt like a foregone conclusion for some time now, but let's not forget that this was anything but a sure thing at the outset. The Mets were not only defending NL East champs but defending NL champs, with a young rotation that was the envy of baseball and an incredibly bright future. The Nationals, meanwhile, were coming off a season of dysfunction, having possibly botched their managerial search, having whiffed on several second basemen who were higher on their wish list than Daniel Murphy and having failed to retain any of their four big free agents.

And we haven't even mentioned Jonathan Papelbon yet.

Now consider the bumps along the way after the season began. Ryan Zimmerman made another couple of DL stints and still hasn't hit his way out of a season-long funk. Neither Ben Revere nor Michael A. Taylor was able to seize the center field job, leaving this team with the least-productive leadoff men in the sport. Anthony Rendon had one RBI in April. Jayson Werth looked old and approaching the end of his career. Max Scherzer was giving up home runs at an alarming rate. Bryce Harper seemed to fall off a cliff after getting walked 13 times in a four-game series at Wrigley Field.

Then Joe Ross went on the DL with a shoulder injury. Stephen Strasburg joined him there with an elbow injury. Papelbon lost his grip on the closer's job, leaving general manager Mike Rizzo scrambling to find a replacement at the trade deadline that didn't cost an arm, a leg and Trea Turner.

That's not exactly a mistake-free, smooth run to a division title. And yet, in the bigger picture, this has been a remarkably smooth run to a division title. Yes, the Mets' implosion and spate of injuries helped. But the Nationals never did falter along the way.

Even with a seven-game losing streak in June, this team's worst 20-game stretch all season was 9-11. That's remarkable consistency.

And it's testament to the talent and depth the Nationals possess. We may have lost sight of this fact a year ago as everything was collapsing, but these guys really are good. So many things went wrong in 2015, and they still won 83 games. Far fewer things have gone wrong in 2016, and they're on pace to win 95 games.

The Nationals were built to win this season. They've done the things they've needed to do to win this season. And, perhaps as soon as tonight, they're going to get to enjoy the first of what they hope are several celebrations over the next month.

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