WASHINGTON — Even before 8 p.m. ET, the result seemed inevitable.
The Nationals jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and 400 miles east, the New York Mets faced a 5-0 hole in the first inning against the Philadelphia Phillies. If the results held, Washington would clinch the NL East title that has seemed a virtual lock for weeks.
However, the Nationals had lost five of their past six games, and the Mets had won two in a row and five of their past eight, so the waiting game it was.
Some 90 minutes later, as both games headed to the bottom of the sixth, Washington held a 6-1 lead while New York attempted to dig itself out of a 10-4 hole. While the former would fly through the sixth frame, the latter made things interesting by bringing two more runners across the plate, despite playing much of the game with reserves.
Progress then slowed to a halt. The game in Pittsburgh didn’t enter into the ninth inning until after 10 p.m. despite four scoreless innings after the fourth. The game in New York crept along more painfully still, as the ninth inning didn’t begin until just after 10:30.
MASN broadcasters Bob Carpenter and FP Santangelo mentioned the possibility of the celebration throughout the game, but by the eighth inning, the talk almost exclusively revolved around the potential clinching. In the top of the ninth, Santangelo began rattling off the players who he expected to celebrate the most, or in his words, who would “go berserk.” Max Scherzer topped the list, and Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Tanner Roark, and Ryan Zimmerman all made the cut.
As the bottom of the ninth kicked into action — just before Francisco Cervelli launched a deep, deep single to right field — a crowd of Nationals fans gathered above the visiting dugout. Chants of “Let’s Go Nats!” rang out through the quickly emptying stadium. Meanwhile, to the east, the Mets added another run in the bottom of the eighth and nearly added more, adding to the seemingly never-ending tedium.
Nationals manager Dusty Baker brought reliever Blake Treinen in for the final out, but it was no cakewalk, as Pittsburgh had two men on base and one of the sport’s most dangerous hitters, Andrew McCutchen, at the plate. Nonetheless, Treinen retired the 2013 NL MVP with a hard line drive to third base. The 6-1 win was sealed.
Washington had completed its half of the bargain, but Philadelphia still had to hold on for three final outs before the Nationals could begin the celebration.
Yet, the pesky Mets simply would not go away. Pinch hitter Jay Bruce launched a one-out home run to bring the score to 10-8, then Eric Campbell fouled off five pitches before drawing an 11-pitch walk to bring the tying run to the plate with just one man retired. Michael Conforto then drew a 7-pitch walk off pitcher Michael Mariot — putting him at two walks and a home run in four batters — before Lucas Duda popped out to shortstop.
With the tying man on first base and two outs, it was all up to catcher Travis D’Arnaud, who grounded out to end the game and make everything official.
Just moments before the clock struck 11 p.m. ET, the Nationals clinched the division title — their third consecutive title in even years. This time around, they did so with eight games remaining — a nice luxury for a team that, while mostly healthy, could certainly use a few days to take it easy.
Then, it’s off to the postseason in hopes of shaking the memory of the past two trips.