It’s official. With their 6-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on Saturday, the Washington Nationals have clinched the National League East, giving them their third division title in three even years (take that, San Fran!).
Heading into the season, the narrative was that Dusty Baker and the Nationals should send an early "tank-you" note (yes, tank) to the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves for essentially laying down on the 2016 season. Despite Philly’s stout start and Atlanta’s formidable finish, the Nats have dominated the division doormats. Their combined 29-9 record against the Phils and Braves is a big reason why they have a .671 winning percentage (49-24) against the NL East (the best of any team in baseball against its own division), which in turn is a big reason why they have clinched.
So now what?
Well, for starters, a whole lot of ponchos, goggles and fizzy lifting juice, perhaps with a Primanti Brothers sandwich to wash it down. Wait a minute. Strike that. Reverse it.
It’s unknown at this point whether the Nats will have home-field advantage in the NL Division Series, but it’s pretty much a given they’ll be facing a Dodgers squad that took five of six from them during the regular season. And that was when Washington had a healthy Daniel Murphy, the MVP candidate who is now suffering from a strained left buttocks. Granted, Washington was without Stephen Strasburg for the June series in L.A., but the Dodgers were without Clayton Kershaw for the July series in D.C., so let’s call that a wash.
Two months later, Kershaw is back on the mound and up to his old Kershaw tricks (11 IP, 4 H, 0 ER over his past two starts before Saturday night's turn), while Strasburg is back on the shelf and up to his old Strasburg tricks (there’s no timetable for his return from a strained flexor mass). The Nats might not miss a beat by sliding Tanner Roark -- arguably baseball’s best No. 3 starter -- into Strasburg’s No. 2 shoes, but the trickle-down effect will be more like a gush-down.
Veteran lefty Gio Gonzalez has been inconsistent all year and has a 7.45 ERA in September. Young righty Joe Ross can be electric, but he has thrown just 5 ⅔ innings since returning from shoulder inflammation that cost him two months. Rookie A.J. Cole has been serviceable, but probably isn’t ready for prime time. Add it all up, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Baker -- who has been known to wring every last inning out of his starters -- use Cy Young contender Max Scherzer and Roark on short rest if the series goes a full five games. Besides overcoming their rotation issues, the Nats will also have to battle the demons of playoffs past.
Since coming to D.C. in 2005, they have made the postseason twice (2012 and 2014). Both times, they won more than 95 games and were NL East champs. Both times, they got bounced by underdog teams in the NLDS. Both times, their bullpen fueled the heartbreak by blowing late leads. This time around, the pen seems better equipped to handle the pressure: Anchored by All-Star closer Mark Melancon, acquired at the trade deadline with those past failures in mind, Washington’s relievers boast a 3.25 ERA that ranks second in the majors. Also this time around, for better or worse, they’re led by a guy who knows a thing or two about coming up short in the playoffs.
Despite being baseball’s second winningest active manager, Baker -- now in his 21st year as a bench boss and with seven postseason appearances already on his resume -- has never won a World Series as a skipper. It’s the reason why, after spending two years away from the game to tend to his health, he came back.
"That’s the exact void I wanna fill, because I didn’t miss much in my life," Baker said in November at his introductory news conference. "I’ve been pretty fortunate and blessed in my life. Only things I’ve missed in my life are ... I signed out of high school ... so I missed being the big man on a college campus, and I missed the love of grandparents because they both died before I was born. The only thing left is a championship."
It remains to be seen whether he’ll fill the void this year, but a Primanti’s and some fizzy lifting juice sure are a good start.