Nationals make history with first division title

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WASHINGTON — The magic number is zero. The Nationals are the National League East champions, despite their 2-0 loss to the Phillies on Monday night.

It helped that the Braves, who were in second place and three games behind entering Monday, were edged by the Pirates, 2-1, in Pittsburgh.

This is the first time the Nationals have won a division title since moving to D.C. after the 2004 season.

“We put ourselves in that position by playing good baseball,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “We made these other teams have to play perfect baseball to catch us. It’s not strange at all [clinching after a loss]. We worked so hard for that, we deserve it.”

The Nationals learned they’d won the NL East at approximately 10 p.m. ET, as they were batting in the bottom of the ninth inning, when it was announced at Nationals Park that the Braves had lost. While the fans cheered, the entire team exchanged hugs in the dugout.

“It was one of those breathtaking moments,” left-hander Gio Gonzalez said. “We just said, ‘Go back inside the clubhouse. Wait until everybody comes back in.’ This is unbelievable. I think this is incredible to be doing it in front of the D.C. fans. Words can’t describe this feeling.”

After Danny Espinosa grounded out to second baseman Chase Utley to end the game, the Nationals celebrated in the clubhouse for about 30 minutes. They doused general manager Mike Rizzo, who built the winning team. They doused Stephen Strasburg, who was shut down last month as a precaution following Tommy John surgery in late 2010.

“[Strasburg] is part of it, definitely. He pitched his [tail] off,” Bryce Harper said. “It was really sad that he had to be shut down, but it’s OK. We have the crown of the NL East. The new year is going to be fun, because he gets to throw the whole year.”

The team went back to the field to celebrate with the fans, who were addressed by Rizzo, Zimmerman, Gonzalez and Harper. Missing from the celebration was manager Davey Johnson, who spent the entire celebration in his office.

Jayson Werth didn’t hesitate to credit Johnson for turning the Nationals into a winning squad. When Werth joined the team after the 2010 season, he wasn’t sure if the Nats would turn things around.

“When I got here, this place was upside down,” said Werth. “[Things didn't change] until Davey took over [last year]. When September came around, this team became a type of team that could really play, could really show up every day and have a lot of heart. It wasn’t until September last year that the belief was there.

“We came into Spring Training this year with the same mind-set, same guys, we added a few key pieces. We knew we were going to lose [Strasburg]. We had a lot of injuries along the way, and it didn’t matter. The guys kept plugging along, we kept playing hard every day. … Here we are, Oct. 1 of year two for me. I couldn’t be happier.”

The Nationals collected just four hits in seven innings against right-hander Kyle Kendrick. Their best chances to score came in the second, fifth and sixth innings. In the second, the Nationals had the bases loaded with two outs, but left-hander John Lannan grounded out to end the inning.

Three innings later, Kurt Suzuki singled to center field with one out and advanced to third base when Kendrick threw the ball past first baseman Ty Wigginton on a pickoff attempt. But Suzuki wasn’t able to score, because pinch-hitter Roger Bernadina flied out to center fielder John Mayberry Jr. and Werth struck out looking.

Harper led off the sixth inning with a double. Three batters later, Harper was on third base when Michael Morse came to the plate, but Morse struck out looking to end the threat.

Lannan pitched well, allowing just two runs on six hits in five innings. The two runs scored in the second. With runners on first and second, Darin Ruf tripled to left-center, scoring Carlos Ruiz and Domonic Brown.

Lannan spent most of the season in the Minor Leagues after left-hander Ross Detwiler beat him out for a rotation spot. On Monday he was celebrating with his teammates.

“Right now, it’s all worth it,” Lannan said. “Being down in [Triple-A] Syracuse and being here right now, it’s all worth it. These fans deserve it, this city deserves it, these guys deserve it. It’s been a long road, but we knew this time was going to come. It’s special.”

After Lannan exited, Craig Stammen dominated, striking out six batters in two innings before making way for Ryan Mattheus and Drew Storen, who blanked the Phillies the rest of the way.

“This is just step one. We need three of those to happen,” Werth said “This is great and all, but want that third one, [the World Series title].”

 By Bill Ladson / MLB.com

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