Posted on September 11, 2017, by Bryan Zarpentine
There are 10 spots in the MLB playoffs, and one of them belongs to the Washington Nationals. The Nationals clinched the NL East division title on Sunday by virtue of their win over the Phillies and the Braves beating the Marlins.
Washington wrapped up its win over the Phillies before the Braves and Marlins finished their game. Nationals players retreated to the clubhouse to watch the Braves erase a 9th inning defict and ultimately beat the Marlins in 11 innings. The players then returned to the field to celebrate and thank the fans who also stayed to watch the end of the Braves-Marlins game.
“Here we are boys – welcome to the postseason!” exclaimed Nationals ace Max Scherzer as he popped a bottle of celebratory champagne.
The Nationals are the first team to qualify for the 2017 MLB postseason. This is also the first time in franchise history the Nationals have won back-to-back division titles. Washington has won the NL East title four times in the last six years. Yet, postseason success continues to elude them, never advancing beyond the Divisional Series.
“We’re in the tournament – what more can you say?” said Ryan Zimmerman.
Of course, for much of the season there’s been little doubt that the Nationals would end up winning the NL East. The Mets were worthy adversaries last season after taking the title from the Nationals in 2015. However, with New York’s pitching staff decamated by injuries, the NL East could not field a team capable of challenging the Nationals in 2017. The Braves and Phillies remain in rebuild mode, while the Marlins struggled to find consistency and will likely finish a distant second.
The biggest challenges the Nationals faced this season were a slew of injuries and a bullpen filled with uncertainty. The former was overcome in large part by bounceback seasons from Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon. Those two joined Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy in giving the Nationals a lineup much deeper than a year ago. Washington also enjoyed surprising contributions from Michael Taylor, Brian Goodwin, and Adam Lind, helping to fill the void left by injuries to Jayson Werth and Adam Eaton.
Meanwhile, the Nationals appear to have their bullpen woes somewhat under control. Sean Doolittle is 17 for 17 in save situations since coming to Washington before the trade deadline. Brandon Kintzier, Ryan Madson, and Matt Albers will also provide the Nationals with a few quality setup men in front of Doolittle.
“We know we’re going to October,” says Scherzer. “We know we’re going to be a good team going into October, and that’s all that matters.”
With the division locked up, the Nationals can turn their attention to earning home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Such a scenario would have been almost impossible to envision a few weeks ago. But with the Dodgers losing 10 games in a row and 15 of their last 16, Washington is only four games behind Los Angeles for the best record in the National League. If the Dodgers don’t snap out of their skid soon, the Nationals could overtake them for the top spot in the playoffs.
Of course, even with a playoff spot wrapped up, the health of Harper hangs over Washington’s head with a little more than three weeks until the postseason begins. Harper has been on the DL for nearly a month with a hyperextended knee. The Nationals expect him back before the start of the playoffs. However, there is no exact timetable for his return. Time is also starting to run out for Harper to return and shake off the rust before the postseason.
If the Nationals are without Harper during the postseason or are forced to play with Harper at less than 100%, it would have a significant impact on their ability to advance. Fortunately for the Nationals, they have three weeks to figure all that out. For now, they can sit back and celebrate another division title.
“This never gets old,” said Zimmerman amidst Sunday’s clubhouse celebration. “Adults don’t get to spray champagne and do stupid stuff in public. This is the only place you can do it.”