The lockers in the home clubhouse were not covered in plastic and reporters were not ducking streams of champagne fired in any and all directions. The speakers simply pumped the usual mix of victory songs one after another. Only the extra-wide smiles and the special playoff t-shirts and hats told the story that anything special had happened at Nationals Park on Thursday night.
For the first time since 1933 a Washington, D.C.-based baseball team will participate in a postseason game. That became official when reliever Drew Storen struck out Dodgers shortstop Hanley Ramirez for the final out of a 4-1 win.
But the Nats are in a unique position in baseball history, too. Because while in the past 16 years a wild-card berth meant entry into the National League Division Series – a five-game series with all the prerequisite playoff hype – this year there will be two wild cards in each league and they will play each other in a one-game play-in. For the loser, it might not feel like it reached the postseason at all. So clinching that game doesn’t exactly kick off the world’s greatest party.
“That was fun, but that’s not what I had my eye on,” Washington manager Davey Johnson said. “It’s a nice step to get here, but every manager that’s leading the division, that’s the only thing that matters, winning your division. The old style where you’re in as a wild card, that was okay. But I don’t want this.”
So in that mood the players celebrated in their clubhouse afterward with a relatively dignified champagne toast to their success. The real party will have to wait until if and when they secure the National League East title and avoid that pesky play-in game all together.
“It basically means that if we lose every game from here on out, we get to play one more game,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “We’re way beyond that. If we come out and play as good as we can for the rest of the year, hopefully we’ll be celebrating much bigger things than this.”
Johnson was in his office saying goodnight to his wife, Susan, when the players came and dragged him out of there. He had a short speech to give.
“You know Davey, he’s not going to give a 20 minute speech,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “He had some brief words, kind of the same thing, ‘Congratulations, but let’s go. We got a big game tomorrow and keep working.’ He gets it. He knows it is big deal for the organization and the city. But for us, this wasn’t the goal coming out of spring.”
Added Storen, so jacked up in the ninth that he struck out Los Angeles’ three best hitter to end it: “It was nice. It was just a nice little mini-celebration. We were all: ‘This is great, but we’ve got our sights set on something bigger.’ It was just a nice pat on the back that we’re going to show up tomorrow, lace up and get another W.”
Some of the Nats claimed they had no idea anything important happened. A 79-year drought had ended, but they figured folks were just really excited over win No. 91.
“I had no clue. I was just running in and telling [Jayson] Werth that Storen is unbelievable,” rookie outfielder Bryce Harper said. “Everyone started going crazy and I looked at the fireworks and said ‘I guess we just did something.’ Someone handed me a playoff hat and a playoff shirt and I said ‘I guess we are going to the playoffs.’’
Storen also claimed he was so focused on protecting the 4-1 lead with Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez and Ramirez due up that he wasn’t even thinking about clinching. Given the unique nature of the accomplishment there was more than one conversation around that clubhouse in recent days about how exactly to celebrate an accomplishment that guarantees them only one postseason contest.
“There was some discussions,” Werth said with a smile. “And obviously our sights are set on the division. But you need to feel good about being a postseason team and relishing the moment. You put a lot of hard work and you dedicate your life to this game and to winning so when you get an opportunity like this you should definitely take advantage of it.”
Werth was part of four consecutive NL East titles while playing for the Philadelphia Phillies, including a 2008 World Series title and 2008 and 2009 NL pennants. He knows when perspective is needed. But some of his teammates were going too far, suggesting that they not celebrate at all.
“I kind of talked them out of that. So that was good,” Werth said. “Any time you get to the postseason it’s a huge accomplishment. There’s a lot of teams that won’t be playing in the postseason and we should relish this moment. The organization and the town of Washington, D.C. should be proud.”
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