Nationals, Reds clinch: NLCS preview?

The most important weekend in Washington Nationals history might have been the final three days of the 2008 season. The Nationals began the weekend 59-99; the Seattle Mariners began the weekend 58-101. Both teams were horrible. The Nationals had lost 12 of 14; the Mariners had lost 14 of 15.

The prize for the ultimate futility: Stephen Strasburg, already the clear No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft.

The Mariners had it in the bag.

Except the Nationals lost three in a row to the Phillies. Their batting order the final day was a beautiful list: Emilio Bonifacio, Anderson Hernandez, Kory Casto, Ryan Langerhans, Alberto Gonzalez, Roger Bernadina, Luke Montz and Pete Orr, with Odalis Perez on the bump. The Nationals lost 8-3.

And then the Mariners did the impossible: They won three in a row against the A's. On the final day, Ichiro Suzuki had two hits and scored two runs. Yuniesky Betancourt had a big two-run triple. The starting pitcher and winner: R.A. Dickey.

The following June, the Nationals drafted Strasburg first overall. The Mariners drafted Dustin Ackley.

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Or maybe the most important day came in the draft in June of 2005, the first for the Nationals since moving from Montreal. With the third pick in that draft, the Mariners selected Jeff Clement. With the next pick the Nationals selected Ryan Zimmerman. That draft also yielded John Lannan and Craig Stammen. In 2007, they drafted Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmermann. In 2008, they drafted Danny Espinosa. In 2009, Strasburg and Drew Storen. In 2010, they once again had the No. 1 overall. It didn't take long for Bryce Harper to arrive.

Maybe the most important day came on June 28, 2009, when then-interim general manager Mike Rizzo traded Langerhans to the Mariners for Mike Morse, a middle-of-the-order bat for nothing.

Maybe the Nationals should give the Mariners part of their playoff share.

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The Washington Nationals clinched a playoff spot with Thursday's 4-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers as Detwiler was terrific over six three-hit innings, lowering his ERA to 3.10, another reminder that this rotation is much deeper than Strasburg, Zimmermann and Cy Young contender Gio Gonzalez.

The celebration was understandably muted; the Nationals obviously have their eyes on a bigger prize and they'll celebrate with more fever when they clinch the National League East sometime next week. Still, it was a great day in franchise history. In 44 seasons since the team played its first on an April day at Shea Stadium in 1969, the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals had been just one postseason appearance, in the 1981 strike season. It was another strike season in 1994, of course, that ultimately helped doom the franchise in Montreal and led to its departure a decade later.

There is still one player on the team with ties to the Expos: Shortstop Ian Desmond was a third-round pick in 2004. Desmond is a great symbol of the franchise's growth in recent years. His prospect status was up and down through the years, a talented player with a terrific but erratic results in the field and at the plate. After making 34 errors as a rookie in 2010 there were long-term doubts about his viability as a big-league starter. The Nationals stuck with him, however, with Davey Johnson a big believer in his ability. Desmond has added power to his game this year and is hitting .296/.333/.517 with 23 home runs, an important cog in an offense that has the second-best OPS in the National League since the All-Star break.

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The Cincinnati Reds also clinched a playoff spot and they could clinch the NL Central title in a day or two, as their magic number is down to two. Their story might not be as dramatic as Washington's and it's difficult to make the case that they're better than the Nationals, considering the Nats have scored more runs and allowed fewer. But it's a good team, a fun team, one that has allowed the second-fewest runs in the NL despite playing half its games in The Great American Ball Park.

Their celebration was also muted, especially with manager Dusty Baker hospitalized with an irregular heartbeat.

"I worry about Dusty, and everybody in that clubhouse was really worried last night," interim manager Chris Speier said. "You don't just go to the hospital for a cold or anything like that. And I still feel that way. ... My thoughts are more about Dusty than this game."

Despite their convincing lead in the NL Central, the Reds still have a few questions to answer in the season's final days. Ace Johnny Cueto, the leading NL Cy Young contender a couple weeks ago, earned his 18th victory in Thursday's 5-3 win over the Cubs with a mixed bag of results: Six scoreless innings but four walks and just two strikeouts. Still, after allowing 14 runs his previous three starts, the six shutout frames was a good sign -- even if they did come against the Cubs.

Closer Aroldis Chapman hasn't pitched since Sept. 10, when he walked three Pirates in two-thirds of an inning (three days after losing a game to the Astros). Chapman has said he no longer feels fatigued but wants a couple more bullpen sessions to work on his command before returning. Watch his velocity when he does pitch again.

Joey Votto is hitting .342 in 13 games since returning from the disabled list, walking like scary-era Barry Bonds (OBP over .500 since return) but hasn't homered. It's a small thing, but worth watching. The Reds can go all the way if opponents keep pitching around Votto and the guy behind him produce, but it would also seem the Reds will need Votto to hit some home runs in the postseason if they want to reach their first World Series since 1990.

So our first two teams are in. The Nats are 91-58 while the Reds are 91-59, so the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage is still up in the air. Who knows what will happen, of course, but I'm thinking there's nothing wrong with a Gio Gonzalez-Johnny Cueto showdown in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.