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Nationals don't go wild after clinching playoff berth

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Photo - Rob Carr/Getty Images
Ryan Zimmerman, left, Bryce Harper and the Nats secured a playoff berth on Thursday night by beating the Dodgers.
Rob Carr/Getty Images Ryan Zimmerman, left, Bryce Harper and the Nats secured a playoff berth on Thursday night by beating the Dodgers.
Sports,MLB,Nationals,Brian McNally

It is not the celebration the Nationals have been waiting for, and so they simply did not embrace it in full.

The crowd roared, the fireworks exploded and the big HD scoreboard announced that a Washington baseball club had clinched a postseason berth for the first time in 79 years after the Nats' 4-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday night at Nationals Park.

But the players jogged out to the pitchers' mound to form a congratulatory handshake line much as they have after their previous 90 wins. Maybe they had an extra hop in their gait. Maybe there was a little more power in their high fives and back slaps. And all wore broad smiles.

But they did not leap headlong into a pile on the infield, and there was only a little champagne toast in the clubhouse afterward. A bigger celebration will come only if and when Washington secures the National League East title. Until then, a berth in a one-game playoff with no guarantee for more October baseball than that is a small, long expected accomplishment. The Nats' magic number to win the division is down to eight, and that is the one they care about.

"We accomplished a goal to make the playoffs, but I think our biggest goal is obviously winning the division," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We have some work left to accomplish that, but this is definitely a good first step. We needed to celebrate it a little bit, I guess. But the next one will not be as subdued, I would imagine."

Zimmerman's RBI double in the third inning scored teammate Bryce Harper, and a wild pitch by Dodgers starter Chris Capuano eventually let Zimmerman score. In the fourth inning, Danny Espinosa doubled home Ian Desmond, took third on a throwing error and then scored on a sacrifice fly by Kurt Suzuki.

Those were more than enough runs for Washington starting pitcher Ross Detwiler, who threw six strong innings and held Los Angeles to one run on three hits with a walks and five strikeouts. Detwiler improved to 10-6 with the win and lowered his ERA to 3.10. He hasn't allowed more than three runs in a game since Aug. 12.

"I was kind of surprised that they gave us hats and shirts and everything," Detwiler said of his team's mild victory celebration. "We are in the playoffs, but we're just trying to miss that play-in game. The whole year we have been saying we want to win the East and we still have to do that."

The Nats (91-58) maintained the best record in baseball but actually became the second big league team to clinch at least a wild-card spot. Earlier in the afternoon, the Cincinnati Reds (91-59) became the first when they beat the Chicago Cubs 5-3. Washington extended its lead over idle Atlanta to 5? games in the NL East chase with just 13 remaining. The second-place Braves have 12 left to play.

The last time a Washington baseball team made the postseason was 1933, when the Senators won the American League with 99 wins. They lost the World Series that year to the New York Giants in five games. The only time the current franchise, based in Montreal from 1969 to 2004, qualified was 1981, when the Expos won the NL East and lost to the Dodgers in five games in the NL Championship Series.

"It is a good feeling to know we're back in and I guess it's been a number of years. Is that a first for D.C.?" manager Davey Johnson asked. "1933? I can't remember that year, but it's close. I'm awful proud of those guys and there was no overcelebrating in there. They had the same kind of subdued attitude that I did."

The Nats remain a half-game ahead of Cincinnati for home-field advantage throughout the postseason. The National League champion automatically gets the extra home game in the World Series thanks to the league's victory in the All-Star Game this summer.

"This is no doubt a big day for this organization and this city," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "Not to downplay the day at all, but guys aren't satisfied in here. We don't look at this like 'mission accomplished.' We've still got some games to win. I love our odds."

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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