Nationals, Orioles clinch respective divisions; Beltway Series possible?
On Tuesday night, the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles became the first teams to clinch their respective divisions this season, doing so in style with wins over the second-place teams. For both teams and cities, as well as the pairing of the two, the division titles carry a significance beyond this season. For the Orioles, the AL East crown is their first since 1997 and just their second since their last world championship season of 1983. For the Nationals, they have in the course of just three years compiled half as many playoff berths (2) as the two Washington Senators teams and Montreal Expos did in a combined 107 major league seasons (4).
In both cases the clinching game was one-sided. The Nationals beat the Braves by a mere 3-0 score, but the game wasn’t as close as the score would suggest. On the day that the Braves broke ground on their new ballpark in Cobb County, Turner Field was deathly quiet as the Braves never got a runner to third base against Tanner Roark, Tyler Clippard or Drew Storen. After Ian Desmond crushed an Aaron Harang curveball into the leftfield seats for a two-run home run that broke the scoreless tie in the top of the sixth, the Braves effectively rolled over. Second baseman Phil Gosselin led off the bottom of the sixth with a single, but the next 12 Braves went down in order. Storen, restored to the closer role in the wake of Rafael Soriano's struggles, needed just seven pitches to work a 1-2-3 ninth and help exorcise some of the ghosts of Game 5 of the 2012 Division Series.
Up in Baltimore, Steve Pearce continued to play the hero, wiping out an early 1-0 Blue Jays lead with a three-run homer off Drew Hutchison in the bottom of the first. Like the Nationals, the Orioles never looked back, adding five more runs on a Jimmy Paredes solo homer off Hutchinson, a bases-loaded triple by Alejandro De Aza off Aaron Loup in the seventh, and a Nick Hundley sac fly in the eighth to make a winner out of Ubaldo Jimenez in his first start since Aug. 31. Pearce was again on the scene in the ninth, recording an unassisted putout at first base for the final out of Baltimore’s 8-2 win.
Baltimore and Washington were both last in the playoffs in 2012, when the Nationals had the best record in baseball and the Orioles were a wild-card entry, but both failed to advance past the Division Series. Tuesday night marked just the third time since the leagues split into divisions in 1969 that two teams from the same metro area clinched on the same day, the last being the Dodgers and Angels in 2004. With the Nationals and Orioles the first to clinch in their respective leagues, it's not outlandish to consider the possibility of the World Series taking place entirely within the Baltimore-D.C. metro area.
In fact, if the Athletics can hold onto their wild-card spot, this year’s postseason could offer three potential regional World Series matchups, with A’s-Giants and Dodgers-Angels joining Orioles-Nationals in that category. Of those three pairings, only one has ever occurred before: The A’s swept the Giants in the 1989 Series, which was interrupted by regional tragedy when an earthquake struck just before the start of Game 3. Since the Dodgers left Brooklyn after the 1957 season, there has been just one other World Series in which the two home ballparks were separated by less than 50 miles, that being the 2000 Subway Series between the Mets and Yankees. Camden Yards and Nationals Park are less than 40 miles apart.
From here, both teams can focus on resting their regulars, getting their rosters in shape and pursuing the best record in their respective leagues, though the last of those is a long-shot for the Orioles, who were four games behind the Angels for the best record in baseball entering Tuesday's action. Most likely, the Orioles will host the AL Central champion in the Division Series, which will start on Oct. 2. The Nationals, however, hold a 1 1/2-game lead over the Dodgers for the best record in the National League, which means they’re not quite done playing meaningful regular-season baseball this year.