They won’t admit it, because they know better than to do such a thing and tempt the baseball gods. But let’s deal in reality here, and the reality is this: The Nationals wrapped up the National League East title this week.
No, they haven’t mathematically clinched anything yet. But after today’s 1-0 win over the Mets, their second in three days against their division rivals, they have opened up a 10-game lead with 16 to play. Their magic number is seven.
The Nationals left town tonight with spirits high, rookies dressed up in women’s tennis outfits but veterans taking part in the annual September dress-up ritual by wearing garish, old-time golf outfits. They now embark on a nine-game road trip through Atlanta, Miami and Pittsburgh.
By the time they return to the District on Sept. 26 for the final homestand of the season, they almost certainly will already have doused themselves in champagne and beer for the third time in five years.
And they all know it.
“Yes, absolutely, I think everybody is very excited about it being very close,” catcher Wilson Ramos said, through interpreter Octavio Martinez. “And I think that’s part of why we’ve been playing very well: The fact that we are very close to clinching a playoff spot. The emotions and the way we were playing out there, you can tell that we’re all tasting a little bit.”
The Nationals have been in control of the division for weeks now. They have led by at least five games since Aug. 1, by at least eight games since Aug. 25.
But the last three days iced it. The Mets came to town knowing they needed to sweep the series to even offer up a glimmer of hope of a miracle September surge. The Nats wound up winning two of three, coming one bottom-of-the-ninth hit away Tuesday night from sweeping.
“It’s real big,” rookie center fielder Trea Turner said. “It’s the last time we’re going to play them. If they sweep us, it could be a lot different situation. Winning this series has, I think, been very big for us.”
Roark set the tone for the afternoon with seven scoreless innings, during which time the Mets put a man in scoring position only twice. In each instance, Roark pitched out of the jam, then hopped off the mound with some extra giddy-up in his step.
“It was a big game,” he said. “I felt like I showed a little too much emotion out there, but like I said, it was a big game, and we pulled through with a W.”
Mets rookie Robert Gsellman had matched Roark through 5 2/3 innings before manager Terry Collins turned the game over to his bullpen. Right-hander Fernando Salas was on the mound in the bottom of the seventh when Ramos stepped to the plate. The big catcher didn’t spend much time there: He blasted Salas’ first pitch 427 feet to left-center field, the ball landing deep into the Red Porch seating area for what proved to be the only run scored in the game.
“In that situation, I was going to be aggressive, looking for a good pitch to hit,” Ramos said. “He left the fastball up a little bit, first pitch, and I connected and made good contact.”
The crowd of 29,669, which included a sizeable group of Mets fans who bussed down from New York and took over the left field corner, roared with delight as Ramos rounded the bases following his 21st homer of the season.
All that remained were the final six outs, which were recorded with ease by a Nationals bullpen that has taken on plenty of work of late.
Blake Treinen got a rare opportunity to pitch the eighth and promptly retired the side with a pair of strikeouts. Then came decision time for bench coach Chris Speier, filling in for Dusty Baker after the manager had to leave town following a death in the family.
Melancon had pitched four of the last five days, and had surrendered the game-winning homer to T.J. Rivera on Tuesday night. The Mets had two left-handed batters (Curtis Granderson and Jay Bruce) leading off the ninth.
Speier, though, in conjunction with pitching coach Mike Maddux, entrusted the final inning to his closer. And Melancon responded with a quick, 1-2-3 ninth that required only 12 pitches.
“I have complete faith in Mike Maddux,” Speier said. “He said Melancon is ready, he’s OK to go. You gotta go with your boy. No problem there.”
And no problem for the Nationals as a whole these days. They’ve been on an inevitable march toward the division title for weeks. Now, the finish line has come into full focus.
The sweet reward for the long grind of the baseball season awaits.