For Nats, a date to remember

Beanballs,Sports,Brian McNally

September 29 is a date to remember in Washington, D.C.’s baseball history. It was when the old Senators clinched their first American League pennant in 1924. It is the date in 2004 that Major League Baseball announced the Montreal Expos would move to the District for the following season. And on Saturday night it became the date that the Nationals clinched at least a tie for their first National League East title.

Washington’s hopes to pop the champagne were ultimately dashed when the second-place Atlanta Braves held on for a 2-0 win over the New York Mets. And after a blown save by Drew Storen in the ninth inning it took an extra frame to even put the St. Louis Cardinals away at Busch Stadium.

But Kurt Suzuki’s 10th inning double put the Nats ahead for good in a 6-4 victory. When reliever Craig Stammen struck out the final batter to end the game a mild celebration began on the infield that will pale in comparison to the next one. With just four regular season games left, Washington is just one win – or one Braves loss – away from securing the N.L. East title.

If it doesn’t happen on Sunday then local fans will have the chance to see the Nats go for the clincher at home on Monday against the Philadelphia Phillies. That game begins the final three-game series of the season. At the very least, Washington has clinched a playoff berth and would host the N.L. wild-card game on Friday night. But for that to happen it would have to lose all four of its remaining games, have Atlanta win its last four and then also lose a playoff tiebreaker at home on Thursday. The odds against that disaster happening are extreme now.

With the win the Nats (96-62) set the franchise record for wins in a season. The 1979 Montreal Expos had won 95 games. Washington can still win 100 for the first time in the city’s baseball history if it takes the final four. The record for a team based in the District is 99 wins by the 1933 Senators, who lost in the World Series. A loss by the San Francisco Giants also ensured at worst the Nats will be the No. 2 seed in the National League Division Series – provided they hold on to win the N.L. East, of course. They are now a game ahead of the Cincinnati Reds for home-field advantage throughout the postseason and will win the tiebreak with that club for the top seed if they both finish with the same record.

The only runs Saturday before Suzuki’s double came in the first inning when Michael Morse hit a bizarre grand slam. Umpires initially thought Morse’s fly ball to right with the bases loaded was in play. He didn’t realize it until he almost ran past teammate Adam LaRoche on second base. Instead, he was thrown out running back to first.

But the umpire crew quickly went to view a replay and saw that the ball went over the fence, hit off a retaining wall behind it and bounced back onto the field. The comedy came when Morse began his home-run trout, but umpires made all runners return to their original base. So he ran a backwards path back to home plate, took a fake swing mimicking his homer and then started his trot all over as teammates doubled over in laughter. That made it 4-0.

St. Louis rallied in the seventh with three runs charged to starter Jordan Zimmermann. Then a couple of singles off Storen and Jon Jay’s sacrifice fly in the ninth tied it at 4-4. Suddenly the Nats weren’t sure they would cut down on their magic number at all. But Storen escaped further damage and Suzuki and Stammen took care of the rest.

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