At long last, the years of losing finally faded into memory. The Nationals' moment had arrived, and it was time to party.
Once a baseball laughingstock, the Nats celebrated their first National League East title Monday night before an electric crowd of over 30,000. They didn't win the game -- the contest went to the Philadelphia Phillies 2-0 -- but because the Atlanta Braves lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates, it didn't matter. That was enough to keep Washington's division lead at three games with just two to play. Despite the loss, the race was over.
"This is one of those moments in life all I can do is just smile and enjoy this moment," Nats pitcher Gio Gonzalez said. "Words can't even describe the excitement that went through my mind."
When the last pitch from Phillies reliever Phillippe Aumont was hit weakly to second base for the final out, the fans still roared and the players stepped out of the dugout to bask in the cheers. Among them was left-hander John Lannan, who after five years of service to the club had toiled most of 2012 in the minor leagues when the front office decided near the end of spring training that it had five better starters. His smile burned brightest.
In just his sixth major league start of the season, Lannan gave up two runs in five innings and induced three separate double plays to keep his team close. Four of Lannan's appearances in 2012 came this month as the team sought a replacement for ace Stephen Strasburg, and he was thrilled to contribute in a meaningful way. But it was a moment he wouldn't have dared dream about even a few weeks earlier as he pitched for Triple-A Syracuse, his first extended stint in the minors since the first half of the 2007 season.
"There was a time in the season where I didn't really know what was going to happen," Lannan said. "But now everything makes sense. This is why everything happened."
Washington (96-64) clinched the NL East almost eight years to the day after Major League Baseball announced the organization would move to the District from Montreal on Sept. 29, 2004. The former Expos never had the pleasure during their days in Quebec, their last, best chance thwarted in 1994 by a labor stoppage.
Philadelphia scored all the runs it needed in the second inning when Darin Ruf tripled off Lannan to drive in two runs. Washington left the bases loaded in the second inning, stranded Kurt Suzuki at third base in the fifth and wasted a leadoff double by Bryce Harper in the sixth.
Phillies pitcher Kyle Kendrick, who was blasted by the Nats in a start in Philadelphia last week, allowed just four hits and a walk in seven shutout innings. Washington also left runners at first and second with one out in the eighth.
But it was no matter. After the last out of the top of the ninth, the final result for the second-place Braves in Pittsburgh quickly flashed on the big HD scoreboard. They had lost 2-1 there, and the division title was secured. The crowd erupted, and players began hugging and shaking hands in the home dugout, smiles all around.
"A lot of other guys have been here for a while," said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who has been with the team since late in the 2005 season. "This whole year was a huge group effort and everyone came together and did so many things to help us get to where we're at now."