Just because they've finally clinched the NL East doesn't mean the Washington Nationals are out of things to play for.
If Gio Gonzalez earns his 22nd win Tuesday night against the Philadelphia Phillies, it would get the newly crowned division champions closer to claiming the NL's best record and ensuring their Cy Young Award candidate starts their playoff opener.
Minutes before the end of Washington's 2-0 loss in this series opener Monday, the result of a different game set off a celebration in the home team's dugout and throughout Nationals Park. Second-place Atlanta losing to Pittsburgh gave the Nationals franchise its first division championship since the Montreal Expos won the East in 1981.
"This is incredible. The excitement. The joy. The fans. Smiles on everyone's faces, the excitement that's going on," Gonzalez said. "Everyone here just witnessed history. Hopefully we can try to continue that journey."
Winning the division seemed to be a foregone conclusion for a Washington team which has led the East since May 22, but some doubt had recently crept in. The Nationals (96-64) are 7-10 since Sept. 13 while the Braves have gone 11-4.
"We put ourselves in that position to have the luxury of having the other team have to play perfect baseball," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We played a great 159, 160 games to get to that point, and we should be commended for that."
Now their attention turns to edging Cincinnati for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Those teams have identical records, but the Nationals own the tiebreaker for winning the season series.
A victory Tuesday along with a Reds loss in St. Louis would wrap up the NL's top seed for Washington, and its division series would begin Sunday. Gonzalez (21-8, 2.89 ERA) would certainly start that Game 1, but if the Nationals finish below Cincinnati, they will open against San Francisco on Saturday and Gonzalez will have had only three days' rest.
With the division race over, manager Davey Johnson might limit Gonzalez's pitch count even though this is the left-hander's last chance to impress Cy Young voters. He leads the majors in wins and opponent batting average (.206) while ranking sixth in the NL in ERA and fourth in strikeouts (207).
Gonzalez has already set the franchise record for victories and now looks to become the first NL pitcher to win 22 games since Brandon Webb with Arizona in 2008. He hasn't surrendered more than three runs in 10 consecutive outings, going 8-2 with a 2.00 ERA.
He gave up three runs in the first inning at Philadelphia on Thursday but held the Phillies scoreless over the next five in a 7-3 victory.
"It's the kind of year he has had," Johnson told the team's official website. "He has been very consistent."
Gonzalez had never faced the Phillies until this season, going 3-1 with a 2.52 ERA.
Darin Ruf had a three-run double off Gonzalez last week and had a two-run triple Monday. Ruf, who led all minor leaguers with 38 homers this season, is hitting .333 in 10 games since being called up.
Jimmy Rollins is 3 for 7 off Gonzalez but might not play after sitting out Monday with a calf injury.
The Phillies (81-79), who won the last five East titles, need one more win to finish above .500 for the 10th straight year.
"I've been mad for three or four weeks; hadn't really been coming out," manager Charlie Manuel said. "We've got to regroup and we've got to play much better."
Manuel now gives rookie reliever B.J. Rosenberg (1-2, 6.86) his first major league start. The right-hander last pitched Wednesday with three hitless innings in an 8-4 loss to Washington.
Rosenberg struck out Bryce Harper in that game, but the 19-year-old sensation has hit .467 over his last eight.
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press
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