Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Nationals, Orioles Clinch Division Titles on the Same Night

"We are so proud of this organization," said Ted Lerner, managing principal owner of the Nationals. "Watching them clinch their second NL East division championship in three years means so much to our fans, our city and our family. [General manager] Mike Rizzo and [manager] Matt Williams should be commended for building and leading a championship club."
Washington Post:
The Nationals and Baltimore Orioles have become virtual locks to clinch division titles this week and gain entry into the Major League Baseball playoffs. Their combined might has given the region its best chance to host a World Series since the Orioles’ championship in 1983, even kindling thoughts of a Beltway World Series.

The Nationals and Orioles each made the postseason in 2012, too, but this fall carries more promise. In 2012, the Nationals were upstarts who won 98 games with a young roster that no one saw coming, and the Orioles sneaked into their first postseason since 1997 by virtue of winning a one-game playoff between non-division winners with the best records.

“I guess you could say that we kind of expect it a little more now,” Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “Two years ago, it was almost like — I don’t know if you’d call it a shock. But it was like, ‘Wow, we must be pretty good.’ Now, I think we’re a pretty established team.”

This season, the Nationals and Orioles have become teams to be feared by the rest of baseball as much as enjoyed by the region. The Nationals have the best record (86-63) and largest division lead in the National League, ahead of the Atlanta Braves by 111 / 2 games in the East. The Orioles had lapped the American League East, leading by 121 / 2 games with an 90-60 record, second in the league to the Los Angeles Angels.

Despite injuries that could have derailed their season, the Orioles have persevered behind one of the most powerful lineups in baseball and a patchwork pitching staff run by Buck Showalter, regarded as one of the brightest managers in baseball. Although the Nationals will not match their win total from 2012, a deeper lineup, better rotation and the presence of star pitcher Stephen Strasburg have put them in stronger position under first-year Manager Matt Williams.

“We’ve got different personnel,” Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth said. “We’ve got more depth. We’re a deeper team. We’re a better team. We’re more experienced. We’re going to have Stephen Strasburg versus not having Stephen Strasburg. I think we’re more well rounded. We were pretty raw in 2012. We’re a little bit more polished now.”

In 2012, the Nationals clinched the NL East at Nationals Park after a loss. Players spilled onto the field and sprayed champagne into the seats. The Nationals’ recent hot stretch coupled with the Braves’ collapse has all but ensured their party will come on the road this year. The Nationals can clinch by winning Tuesday night in Atlanta. The Orioles, meanwhile, can clinch at home with a win Tuesday night against the Toronto Blue Jays.

In 2012, the Nationals had the best record in the NL and opened the playoffs on the road because of a scheduling quirk: the one-game playoff had just been introduced, and MLB needed to shorten the number of travel days in the series, so the Nationals played two games in St. Louis before three in Washington. This year, all Division Series will have a traditional 2-2-1 format.

The Nationals’ and Orioles’ dual excellence, then, could lead to an early-October extravaganza, a weekend of baseball unlike any the region has experienced. As long as they both maintain one of the top two records in their respective leagues, four division series playoff games would take place from Oct. 2 to Oct. 4, with both Camden Yards and Nationals Park hosting playoff games Oct. 3.

The prospect may be too irresistible not to consider for a Mid-Atlantic baseball fan. But the Nationals have consciously blocked it out of their minds. Baseball players survive their marathon season with mental blinders, never straying from the day’s task. All-star pitcher Jordan Zimmermann said he did not pack protective goggles for a champagne celebration.

“When the time comes and we get closer, I’m sure someone will get a bunch of stuff,” Zimmermann said. “Right now, we’re not looking at that.”

After the Nationals beat the New York Mets three times in four games this weekend — while the Orioles were taking three of four from the Yankees in Camden Yards — Werth admitted a clinch “seems inevitable.” But he also stressed the importance of finishing strong to claim home-field advantage in the postseason by virtue of having the league’s best record.

Williams, who played in three World Series as a player, continues to react to any suggestion that the Nationals have ensured a playoff spot as if he swallowed a bug.

“It’s human nature to look ahead,” Williams said. “We cannot do that, and we must not do that. To concentrate on tonight’s game is key and important. For us to peek around the corner will do us no good. That’s what I’ve learned. I think these guys have the same mind-set. They’re all about today and winning today. We’ll move to tomorrow when it’s time to do that.”

Even while handling what General Manager Mike Rizzo described as “unfinished business,” the Nationals cannot help but sense the rhythms of fall baseball. Shadows creep across the infield. The sun sets lower and assaults outfielders’ eyes. Fans grow rowdier.

“You can definitely feel a good buzz in the ballpark,” Rizzo said.

“Everyone is excited to get to the field every day,” Zimmermann said. “We’re pretty close. We just need to keep playing the way we’ve been playing. When it happens, it happens.”

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