Nationals win NL East, 1st MLB team to clinch playoff spot
WASHINGTON (AP) Stephen Strasburg and teammates zipped through their quickest home game of the season, then waited along with several hundred fans at Nationals Park. About 90 minutes after finishing a victory over the Phillies, Washington broke out the champagne to celebrate its continued NL East supremacy.
Strasburg extended his scoreless streak to a franchise-record 34 innings, and the Nationals beat Philadelphia 3-2 on Sunday in a tidy 2 hours, 16 minutes. A little while later, Washington clinched its fourth NL East title in six seasons when the Braves beat the Marlins on an 11th-inning homer in Atlanta.
Fans remained in the stands to watch the Braves rally with three runs in the ninth, and fireworks erupted from the upper deck after Atlanta finished off Miami, making the Nationals the first team in the majors to clinch a playoff spot this year. Players poured out of the dugout wearing ski goggles, embraced their wives, girlfriends and children and flung hats and T-shirts into the crowd.
”This one was very, very gratifying. Even though it looked like we had a comfortable lead, it was still a struggle,” manager Dusty Baker said in the booze-soaked clubhouse. ”A lot of our top guys were hurt.”
The Nationals also won the NL East in 2012, 2014 and last year, but they haven’t advanced past the divisional round of the postseason.
”It’s the most well-balanced team that we’ve had,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. ”We’re very efficient offensively. We don’t strike out nearly as (much as) we did in ’12, ’14 and ’16. We think that we have more ways to score. Our rotation is our rotation. It’s as good as it gets.”
Baker had the luxury of resting nearly all his regulars on Sunday, but one player who didn’t need a break was Strasburg, who was infamously shut down before the playoffs in 2012 in his first season after Tommy John surgery. Strasburg has just one career postseason start, a loss in 2014.
Now, he’s pitching better than ever, joining Max Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez in a formidable trio that Washington will carry into the playoffs.
”Stras has been a big part of this franchise since he joined it. He’s been an elite major league pitcher every time he toes the rubber,” Rizzo said. ”I couldn’t be happier that he’s going in the right direction going into October, and it’s a place he belongs.”
Strasburg (13-4) threw two-hit ball for eight innings and struck out 10. He hasn’t allowed a run since Aug. 19 at San Diego, which was his first start since coming off the disabled list with an elbow nerve impingement.
Since returning from the DL, he is 3-1 with an 0.51 ERA, 41 strikeouts and just four walks.
”It just comes with trust. That’s the biggest thing,” Strasburg said. ”Trust your ability, trust your stuff, and you go out there and kind of sleep well at night, no matter what happens.”
Strasburg had command of everything he threw, including a fastball topping out at 97 mph and a 90-mph changeup. He walked one, induced two double plays and faced one batter over the minimum.
”He had all his pitches working for him and he was tough to hit,” Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. ”We have young guys who have never seen him before, which also added to his success, not that he needs that.”
Trea Turner homered and tripled for the Nationals, and Victor Robles got his first major league hit and RBI.
The Phillies threatened in the ninth off Ryan Madson, who allowed Nick Williams’ bloop two-out, two-run single before retiring Rhys Hoskins on a grounder. It was his second save this season and first for the Nationals, who acquired him in a trade with Oakland on July 16.
Then the wait began.
”I was about to go to sleep in my office,” Baker said. ”It looked like we were going to have to wait until Tuesday, but now, it’s a perfect scenario. We can enjoy it tonight, have a day off tomorrow. Usually you’ve got to come right back and play the next day, and guys are either super tired or hung over.”
Despite the spring training-type lineup that Baker fielded on Sunday, the Nationals are relatively healthy heading into October, with one major question mark: former MVP Bryce Harper, who’s out with a hyperextended knee. Asked how the knee was feeling, Harper said, ”ready to party tonight,” without elaborating.
Rookie Ben Lively (3-6) allowed six hits and struck out seven in his first career complete game, and the first for the Phillies this year.
Lively allowed one hit before Turner led off the sixth with a triple and scored on Adrian Sanchez’s bloop double. Robles doubled with two outs.
Turner homered with one out in the eighth to extend Washington’s lead.
”That’s just baseball. Two bad pitches, and that was the ballgame,” Lively said. ”Otherwise, I felt great. I felt like our game plan was on point. Just two hangers.”
The Nationals have an outside shot at catching the free-falling Los Angeles Dodgers for the best record in the majors, which would guarantee them home-field advantage throughout the postseason. Catcher Matt Wieters, who made the postseason three times in the past five seasons with the Orioles, isn’t obsessing over the standings.
”Normally I do like watching scoreboards,” Wieters said before the game. ”We know with the lead that we have, that if we just go out there and win, we’ll be fine, and with the postseason, and I’ve learned this from the past, anything can happen at any time, so trying to control situations of where you play or what you’ll do is really reaching at things that may not be in your control.”
Nationals: Baker rested 2B Daniel Murphy, 3B Anthony Rendon, OF Michael A. Taylor and 1B Ryan Zimmerman on Sunday, and Wieters and OF Jayson Werth sat out both Saturday and Sunday. Werth has a sore shoulder, and Wieters has dealt with intermittent back tightness.
Phillies: OF Aaron Altherr made his first start since Aug. 4, going 0 for 3. Altherr (right hamstring strain) was activated from the 10-day disabled list Monday but did not appear in a game until Saturday, when he played the ninth inning in left field. … OF Odubel Herrera was out of the lineup one day after his 21-game hitting streak ended.
Nationals: LHP Gio Gonzalez (14-6, 2.50 ERA) starts the opener of a three-game home series against the Braves on Tuesday. RHP Julio Teheran (10-11, 4.77 ERA) will pitch for Atlanta.
Phillies: After an off day Monday, Philadelphia begins a 10-game homestand Tuesday against Miami with RHP Nick Pivetta (5-10, 6.49 ERA) drawing the start.
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