A year delayed, Nats celebrate 2nd NL East title
ATLANTA (AP) The Washington Nationals celebrated like a team that expected to be in this position a year ago. They snapped plenty of selfies. They sprayed beer on just about anything that moved. They romped to Lil Jon's party anthem ''Turn Down for What.''
Now that they've made up for lost time, it's time to get back to work.
The Nationals don't want another one-and-done trip to the playoffs.
Returning to the top of the NL East, Washington wrapped up its second division title in three years on Tuesday night with a 3-0 victory over the Atlanta Braves, the team that won the crown a year ago.
''Nice to have it done,'' said Washington first baseman Adam LaRoche, who began his career with the Braves. ''The sooner, the better.''
LaRoche and many of his teammates remember what happened two years ago, when the Nationals had a major league-leading 98 wins but were stunned by the St. Louis Cardinals in the deciding game of the NL division series.
Washington jumped ahead 6-0 after three innings and still led 7-5 going to the ninth, only to give up four runs with two outs.
''We have a chance for redemption,'' LaRoche said.
Despite their playoff meltdown, the Nationals looked like an emerging powerhouse going into last season. They were a big disappointment instead, finishing a distant 10 games behind the Braves in the division and missing the playoffs.
The rivals battled neck-and-neck much of this season. In fact, they were tied for first at the All-Star break.
But the Braves faded down the stretch, unable to overcome a feeble offense. The Nationals kept right on winning, even though outfielder Bryce Harper and pitcher Stephen Strasburg have yet to become the breakout stars everyone expected.
Harper is hitting .269 with 13 homers and 32 RBIs. Strasburg is 12-11 with a 3.34 ERA.
But the Nationals have relied on superior depth to make up for the shortfalls of their young stars. Desmond, LaRoche, Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon all have at least 80 RBIs. Roark (14-10) and Doug Fister (14-6) are pacing the team in wins, while Jordan Zimmermann (12-5) and Gio Gonzalez (8-10) will make it tough to pare down the rotation for the postseason.
''It's not just one thing,'' Werth said. ''We've got a lot of talent.''
The Nationals are 1 1-2 games ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the race for home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs, but there are other issues to address over the rest of the regular season.
The bullpen is a bit of concern. Rafael Soriano has 31 saves but a 6.95 ERA since the All-Star break. Drew Storen earned the save on Tuesday but is still dogged by memories of failing to close out the Cardinals two years ago.
Slugger Ryan Zimmerman is nearing the end of his rehab from a torn hamstring, giving the Nationals a chance to break him in at various positions over the final days of the regular season. He has been playing simulated games in the Florida Instructional League without any problems, a big bat who could potentially bolster the lineup just in time for the playoffs.
Atlanta, meanwhile, lost for the 11th time in 14 games, further damaging its hopes of making a third straight playoff appearance as a wild card. The Braves dropped to 75-76 with their fifth straight loss, the first time they have been under .500 since losing on opening day.
It was the 10th time the Braves have watched a visiting team celebrate a playoff victory or postseason-clinching win since moving to Turner Field in 1997.
''You never want anybody to celebrate on your field,'' manager Fredi Gonzalez said.
The Braves fell 5 1-2 games behind Pittsburgh for the second NL wild card with 11 games left in the regular season.
''We've still got a chance,'' Gonzalez insisted. ''Now we've got to set our sights on a winning streak.''
The Nationals will be making just the third playoff appearance in the franchise's 46-year history. The club reached the postseason only once as the Montreal Expos (in 1981) before moving to Washington for the 2005 season.
''It's just one step. There's a long, hard road ahead of us,'' Werth said. ''But we're going to enjoy the moment for now.''
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