Nats on verge of completing historic path to postseason

Baseball players are as superstitious as they get, so it’s not surprising that Adam Eaton was none too pleased when he walked into the Nationals clubhouse Monday afternoon and saw rolled up plastic curtains positioned over every locker.

“Don’t bring that up. I’m not happy about it,” Eaton said with a smile but more than a hint of truth behind the facade. “I’m not happy at all. We’ve had a discussion. It won’t happen again. If I had it my way, I would do a Chris Sale and rip every single one of them down. (Chris, I love you.) But I’m not happy with that. It’s a distraction in my book, and shouldn’t have happened.”

adam-eaton-close-white.jpgEaton, and perhaps others on the Nationals roster, can worry about putting the cart before the horse all they want. But let’s face facts here: The horse is standing right next to the cart at this point.

The Nationals could clinch a postseason berth tonight. Yes, it’s only a wild card berth. It only guarantees one extra game after Sunday’s regular season finale, nothing more.

But given where this team was exactly four months ago, it deserves to be celebrated with champagne.

The story has been told ad nauseam, but it’s a good story. And an exceptionally rare one. The Nationals opened this season 19-31. They are now as little as two wins away from clinching a spot in the postseason. That simply doesn’t happen in this sport.

In fact, only two teams in the last century have done it, making the postseason after playing so poorly in their first 50 games. The 1974 Pirates started 18-32 but finished 88-74, winning the National League East title. The 2005 Astros started 18-32 and finished 89-73, winning a wild card berth and ultimately the NL pennant before getting swept by the White Sox in the World Series.

That’s the whole list. And the Nationals are on the verge of joining them, and perhaps even surpassing them. If they go 4-3 the rest of the week, they’ll get to 90 wins, something neither the ‘74 Pirates nor ‘05 Astros did.

First things first. They need to clinch, which requires some combination of three Nationals wins and/or Cubs losses. And because of today’s day-night doubleheader, it’s possible (if not likely) that it will happen tonight.

The Nationals would need to beat the Phillies in the 1:05 p.m. makeup game, with Joe Ross on the mound against Blake Parker, the first of a parade of relievers Gabe Kapler intends to pitch during what could be a very slow ballgame on a Tuesday afternoon.

If that happens, then all eyes will be on both Nationals Park and PNC Park tonight, beginning at 7:05 p.m. If Max Scherzer leads the Nats to another victory, and if the dreadful Pirates can somehow pull themselves together to beat a shell-shocked Cubs team that is riding a six-game losing streak, there will be a celebration on South Capitol Street.

This should not be taken for granted. The Nationals have had four clinching celebrations in the previous seven years, but only two of those at home. And neither included a game-ending dogpile at the center of the diamond.

In 2012, the Nats actually lost to the Phillies but clinched their first-ever NL East title during the top of the ninth when the Pirates beat the Braves. (See, the Pirates are capable of doing this! They’ve done it before!) There were cheers and hugs and champagne in the clubhouse, but no traditional moment of jubilation on the field.

In 2017, the Nats beat the Phillies on a Sunday afternoon, then sat around in the clubhouse and watched the Braves beat the Marlins in extra innings to clinch the NL East title for their rivals. A couple thousand fans stuck around to watch it on the scoreboard, and the players ran back out onto the field to celebrate with them. But again, it wasn’t a traditional clincher.

If everything plays out - and times out - perfectly tonight, it could happen. And if it doesn’t, there will be another opportunity Wednesday or Thursday. Adding to the possibilities, the Nationals would eliminate Bryce Harper and the Phillies from postseason contention with one more head-to-head win.

That’s why the plastic curtains are in position in the clubhouse. It’s why somewhere in a large refrigerator at Nationals Park, champagne bottles are being stored.

A long and wild road from the brink of disaster to the brink of celebration has reached its final turn. It could happen by night’s end. And whenever it does happen, it’s worth appreciating.

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