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Nationals finally first, Tigers steal crown, final playoff race and more

Five thoughts on a champagne-filled evening, in which two division titles were clinched and a third club punched their ticket to the postseason, destination -- wild card or division championship -- thus far unknown.

1. The first National is finally first. Upon moving to D.C. for the 2005 season, the ex-Expos franchise chose Ryan Zimmerman with their first-round pick that June, making him the first indigenous member of the Nationals. He made his MLB debut on Sept. 1 that year and has become a franchise player at third base, but the club had a .423 winning percentage, zero winning seasons and two 100-loss campaigns in the first 999 games Zimmerman was with the club before the 2012 season.

At long last, however, the Nationals are not only playoff-bound, but NL East champs. Though Washington lost 2-0 to Philadelphia on Monday, Atlanta lost 2-1 to the Pirates to secure the division title for the Nats. Three weeks ago, Zimmerman was asked about his journey through all those bad years to now playing meaningful games in September and October. He said he hadn't much time to reflect but said, "It's definitely a nice change. It kind of makes all those struggles and all those bad years, I guess, almost worth it. I don't know if they ever get completely justified, but it's definitely a good feeling."

The Nationals now have a secure place in the Division Series, though they still have homefield advantage to play for -- they are tied with the Reds but hold the tiebreaker. Washington isn't exactly streaking into the postseason, with a 7-10 record since beginning a season-ending stretch of 19 games entirely against clubs who were in playoff contention in September. But it can start worrying about that tomorrow. For tonight, it has reason to celebrate: the District's first division title, an idea that seemed very far away for most of the Nationals' existence and Zimmerman's career.

2. They, uh, had it all the way. The Tigers entered the season as prohibitive favorites in the AL Central and, on Monday, clinched the division crown, as expected.

That summary is overly succinct, of course, and skips a whole lot of harrowing mid-summer nights in which Detroit was wallowing in second or third place. It has only spent 31 game days in first, most of which were in April. But those bad memories are now forgotten thanks to its 6-3 victory over the Royals, highlighted by four hits and a home run by Miguel Cabrera, who now seems like a good bet to win the Triple Crown.

Just a week ago, the Tigers lost a doubleheader to the Twins, and one wondered if they'd fail to capitalize on the White Sox's skid. But Detroit has now won seven of eight -- while Chicago has lost 11 of 13 -- and can veritably claim it is streaking into the playoffs.

Its only penalty is never having homefield advantage (unless it plays the wild card team in the ALCS), and the Tigers' winning percentage at home (.617) is 149 points better than it is away from Comerica Park (.468). But that's not anything a strong road start by Justin Verlander, Doug Fister or (if healthy) Max Scherzer can't overcome.

3. A's are wild. The Angels were the big offseason and trade-deadline spenders. The Rays were the club with the great recent track record. Both were playoff regulars, each having made three playoff appearances since 2007.

Yet both will be watching the 2012 postseason from home after the Athletics -- who last had a winning season when they won the division back in 2006 -- defeated the Rangers 4-3 to clinch a playoff spot and eliminate the heavily favored Angels and Rays. Oakland may not be done, either: it is just one game behind Texas in the AL West with two more head-to-head games to play in O.co Coliseum.

The A's won behind a strong outing from Jarrod Parker, who pitched with the poise of a playoff veteran, which, technically speaking, he is. Last year with Arizona, Parker was a September call-up who made one regular-season start and sufficiently impressed the Diamondbacks that he earned a spot on the playoff roster; he faced four batters in the NLDS, allowing two hits, a walk and a run.

This time, however, Parker is far better equipped for the playoffs. At 13-8 with a 3.47 ERA in 29 starts, he has emerged as the late-season leader of Oakland's all-rookie rotation, but he's stepped up in big spots. Since Sept. 1 Parker has made six starts against serious playoff contenders -- facing the Angels and Rangers twice each and the Orioles and Yankees once apiece -- and has logged a quality start every time out, for a combined total of a 4-1 record with a 2.63 ERA.

4. Dodged another one -- for now. The Cardinals, who entered Monday with a magic number of two to clinch the second wild card over the Dodgers, won their early evening game behind another solid home outing from lefty sinkerballer Jaime Garcia, who is 3-5 with a 5.02 in 11 road starts, but improved to 4-2 with a 2.82 ERA in nine home starts.

That put Los Angeles in a do-or-die situation in their home bout with the Giants and an Elian Herrera ninth-inning line drive off the glove of pulled-in second baseman Marco Scutaro -- which likely would have been an inning-ending double play, if caught -- drove home the tie-breaking run for the 3-2 walkoff win.

The Dodgers, who are already on a six-game winning streak, no longer have any margin for error, needing two wins against the Giants and two Cardinals losses against the Reds, in order to force a tiebreaking one-game playoff. Fans of end-of-season baseball mayhem will be rooting for it, as this is the last playoff spot up for grabs, but L.A. hasn't had a winning streak of at least eight games since May 2010.

Lefthanders Chris Capuano and ace Clayton Kershaw are scheduled to start the Dodgers' remaining two games, which is good because they are the team's best two pitchers but is bad news given the fact that the Giants' 39-18 record (.684) against lefty starters is easily the best in the majors.

5. Incoming Tex. In seeking their 13th AL East title in the last 16 years, the Yankees started a resurgent CC Sabathia on the mound and, for only the second time in a month, some semblance of their normal, everyday starting lineup now that Mark Teixeira was back at first base. "I can't remember the last time we had our whole lineup healthy," New York manager Joe Girardi said. They were opposed by a Red Sox team with only three regulars amongst the 10 men in their lineup and starting pitcher.

The outcome (a 10-2 Yankees win) and method (four New York homers) were predictable, but the fact that Teixeira was a key contributor -- 1-for-3 with a walk and one of the team's four homers in a nine-run second inning -- was particularly encouraging.

"First time around, I came back too soon, we all know that," Teixeira said before the game. "This time around I feel better."

More than anything, Teixeira's absence affirmed the value of Ichiro Suzuki and, secondarily, the versatility of Nick Swisher. Teixeira missed 30 games with his injury, and Swisher started 18 of them at first, which Girardi was able to do largely because of the outfield depth provided by Suzuki. (The others who started at first: Steve Pearce seven times, Casey McGehee three times and Eric Chavez twice.)

Teixeira played only once from Aug. 28 through Sept. 30, during which time Suzuki played all 31 games and batted .376 with a team-leading .895 OPS. Also, the incredible hot bat of Robinson Cano -- who now has seven straight multi-hit games, including two doubles and a homer Monday night, and is 18-for-29 during that stretch -- is above-and-beyond production that has helped compensate for Teixeira's absence and Alex Rodriguez's struggles.

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