No drama: Nationals are 2016 NL East champs

PITTSBURGH - The 2016 Nationals won the National League East without drama, without wild pendulum swings, without the kind of indelible memories (both good and bad) that so often define championship seasons.

No, this was a methodical march to a division title by a ballclub that simply was very good throughout and wore down its opponents along the way.

And now, at last, these guys can celebrate their achievement.

The Nationals officially clinched the NL East crown tonight, beating the Pirates 6-1 at PNC Park and then watching as the Phillies fended off a furious Mets rally from 10 runs down at Citi Field, the 1-2 punch necessary to turn a magic number of two into a magic number of zero and ignite a champagne celebration in the visitors clubhouse here.

chris-heisey-walk-off-white.jpgAnd they did it, as they so often have all season, in methodical fashion. They took a quick lead, expanded that lead shortly thereafter and then finished things off.

Might as well have been a condensed version of the 2016 season. The Nationals opened the Dusty Baker Era with a 9-1 record. They only briefly fell out of first place, for a measly four days in early May, then retook their lead over the Mets and Marlins and continued to expand it steadily over the next four months.

In the end, they managed to open up an 8 1/2-game lead on New York with only eight games remaining on the schedule. That's all she wrote.

It's the franchise's third division title in five years, and all were won in relatively convincing fashion. This team still has never found itself thrust into a down-to-the-wire pennant race, an oddity to be sure but one no one is complaining about considering the end results.

Next up: Winning a postseason series for the first time. The Nationals will face the NL West winners (almost certainly the Dodgers) in the NLDS, beginning Oct. 7. That best-of-five series will go a long way toward cementing this club's legacy, but that's a story for another day.

Right now, this achievement deserves to be celebrated, and celebrate these Nationals will.

In the wake of Friday night's crushing loss, during which Mark Melancon blew the save with two outs in the ninth and Yusmeiro Petit surrendered the winning run in the 11th, the Nationals remained a loose and upbeat bunch this afternoon. At least a dozen players were in the PNC Park outfield some 4 1/2 hours before game time playing soccer, Frisbee, Nerf football or trying to fly a toy airplane.

This, after all, is a mostly veteran team, with a host of guys who have been here before and weren't about to start panicking over a slightly delayed division title clinch.

And when they took the field for real at 7:07 p.m., they were all business, bursting out of the gates to open up a quick 3-0 lead behind Bryce Harper's sacrifice fly and Stephen Drew's two-run single.

Handed that lead before he even took the mound, Joe Ross was sharp through his first two innings of work, throwing 25 of his 36 pitches for strikes. The right-hander, though, faded in the bottom of the third, and that caused some trouble.

Baker's ideal plan entering the game was for Ross to throw four or five innings, building upon his three-inning, 51-pitch return from the disabled list. The manager's one caveat: He wanted Ross to avoid any prolonged innings. So when the right-hander needed 27 pitches to face six batters in the third, Baker decided not to push him any farther.

Sean Burnett entered with two outs and the bases loaded and coaxed a line out to right field from John Jaso, protecting a 3-1 lead. The Nationals still needed six more innings from their bullpen, but their lineup made sure to provide that group some more room for error.

Thanks in part to three Pirates errors, the Nationals scored three more runs in the top of the fourth, extending the lead to 6-1.

Meanwhile in Flushing, the Phillies were on a rampage, exploding to a 10-0 lead over the Mets that left manager Terry Collins benching many of his starters and sending the B squad out to the field for the rest of the night. Those backups did make it interesting, rallying to get to within striking distance, but not close enough to pull off the unthinkable.

And thanks to a dazzling performance out of the bullpen by Reynaldo Lopez, who took over in the bottom of the fourth and kept posting nothing but zeroes until he was pulled with one out in the ninth, the Nationals gave the Pirates no reason to conjure up thoughts of their own comeback.

Everything was academic. No drama. Just a methodical completion of the rest of the game.

It was, in the end, a fitting way for these Nationals to clinch this division title.

From the sting of 2015 to division champs of 2016
Opposite dugout: With nothing to lose, D-backs loo...

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