Best of the Decade: Nationals clinch first playoff berth, win NL East in 2012

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As the Nationals celebrate 10 seasons in Washington, D.C., we reflect on some of the best moments since the franchise moved to the nation’s capital. Each Wednesday through mid-August, check out Nationals Pastime for a remembrance of one of the watershed moments in Nationals history.

A new chapter of for the Washington Nationals began on September 20, 2012 when Drew Storen whiffed Hanley Ramirez on a filthy slider to beat the Dodgers 4-1 and secure the franchise’s first-ever playoff berth since moving to the nation’s capital eight years earlier.

A crowd of 30,369 stood and screamed at Nationals Park. Mike Rizzo, the Nationals general manager who had come under so much criticism for his protection of prized ace Stephen Strasburg, pumped his fists emphatically in a suite high above the field.

Meanwhile, the players, following the approach of their 69-year-old manager Davey Johnson, reacted in an all-business-like manner. The National League East crown was the true prize, and the Nationals, holding a 5 1/2 game lead over the Braves after the win, now had a magic number of eight.

“It was great,” Johnson said to MLB Network. “But winning just (to get in) the one-game playoff, that doesn’t do a whole lot for me, you know what I’m saying.”

Rookie Bryce Harper, then 19 and baseball’s youngest player, showed a bit more emotion.

“Just to get to the postseason and get in the playoffs and really and establish ourselves as a winning organization, I’m getting chills right now because of all these fans and stuff. This is unbelievable,” Harper said.

The Nationals shared a simple champagne toast in the clubhouse after the accomplishment but saved the real partying for the pennant.

Eleven days later, the Nationals’ magic number was down to one. Atlanta trailed 2-1 late in Pittsburgh when fans at Nats Park began chanting “Let’s go Pirates!” The Nationals took the field in the top of the ninth, losing to the Phillies 2-0. Three outs later, as they were heading to the dugout, they became NL East division champions when the Pirates beat the Braves 2-1.

With the remainder of the game seemingly meaningless, the Nationals dugout erupted in jubilation. A crowd of 35,387 screaming fans stood and cheered as Johnson stepped to the top of the dugout in between innings, pumping both fists high in the air and blowing kisses out to the masses.

Rizzo constructed a team that went from winning 59 games in both 2008 and 2009 to 98 wins, most in the National League in 2012.

“We’ll be back and doing this a couple more times,” Rizzo told reporters on the winning mentality cultivated in Washington.

The Nationals never relinquished the NL East lead after May 22. Johnson’s lineup boasted four players - Adam LaRoche, Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and Harper - who all hit 20 or more homers along with sluggers Michael Morse and Jayson Werth, who both missed time with injuries.

“This is satisfaction,” Zimmerman told reporters after experiencing all the lows of the franchise in his career. “We’ve come a long way, and it’s been a long year. To finish on top was something I’ll never forget.”

“Getting into the playoffs is Step 1,” Johnson told reporters. “Winning your division is Step 2. Winning the World Series is Step 3.”

Unfortunately, the Nationals fell short of the third step, losing a devastating Game 5 to the Cardinals in the NLDS. But the memories will always remain with the 2012 Nationals, who brought postseason baseball to D.C. for the first time since 1933.

* Miss any of the memorable moments we’re highlighting from Nationals history? Here’s the list to date:

No. 10: 10-game winning streaks in 2005, 2014
No. 9: Mr. Walk-Off started it all on Father’s Day 2006
No. 8: Nationals return to the postseason in 2014
No. 7: Zimmerman’s walk-off welcomes Nats to new home
No. 6: Zimmermann’s no-hitter to end 2014 regular season
No. 5: Nationals draft Bryce Harper

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