Frank Robinson, who managed the Washington Nationals in their first two seasons in the nation's capital in 2005-2006 following the franchise's move from Montreal, said this past October when he threw out the first pitch at the first postseason game in D.C. in 79 years, that he saw things coming together for the Nats toward the end of the 2011 campaign. "It came a little quicker than I thought it would," the 77-year-old veteran of 21 major league seasons as a player and 16 as a manager said, "but after last year I felt good about this franchise having an opportunity to do something probably this year if not next year, so it's come a year sooner."
Jayson Werth said the same as he stood on the field a week earlier celebrating the Nationals' first NL East Division title. The 33-year-old outfielder in the second year of his 7-year/$126M dollar deal with the Nats said when he signed that he saw an up-and-coming franchise in Washington and wanted to be a part of turning things around. Late in a rough first year in a Nationals uniform in 2011 during which he put up a .232/.330/.389 line, Werth said he saw something change that convinced him things would be different in his second season in D.C.
As Werth talked to reporters on the field in Nationals Park on October 1st this past season, while celebrating the fact that he and the Nats had clinched the NL East, he too admitted that it might have happened a little bit sooner than he'd imagined. "Maybe I didn't totally expect it in year two," Werth said, "But I was expecting it by year three. So, did it come early? Maybe. I don't know, but after September of last year I was confident it could happen."
That's about the time Davey Johnson said he made the decision to come back for a second season on the Nationals' bench in 2012. In the last few weeks of September he was sure. "When I had kind of more the mixture of talent I wanted on the ballclub and [saw] how they all worked together," the 69-year-old skipper said, "That was when I really felt, 'Man, there's so much more we can do here and I need to be here to help see it along.'"
When his return was officially announced in the winter of 2011, Johnson told reporters he really felt something special could happen. "I like the way we stack up against everybody in our division," Johnson said, "I'm not just sticking out my chest and saying some hot air. My baseball instincts tell me that that's where we need to be, that's where we need to go and that we can get there."
The Nationals did get there and they clinched in front of the hometown crowd. The Nationals took over first place in the NL East for good with a May 22nd win over Roy Halladay and the division rival Philadelphia Phillies. Washington held first place in the division from that point on, and for all but ten days in 2012 as they held off the Atlanta Braves, who were within 2.0 games of the division lead as late as the first week of August before the Nats pulled ahead and hung on to win the division with a 98-64 record and a 4.0 game lead in the division just a year after they finished 80-81 in third place in the NL East, 21.5 games out of the first place.
"No one expected us to do what we're doing," 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez told reporters after the Nationals clinched the division, "And to make history and do this... let us enjoy this moment." The Nationals enjoyed the moment with a clubhouse celebration which spilled out onto the field for a while so the players could share the moment with several thousand of the 40,084 fans who turned up that night and stayed behind to participate in what was at that point the most exciting night of baseball in the nation's capital in decades. Four days later the Nats played the first postseason game by a team based in D.C. since 1933. A little over a week after they clinched the division the Nationals brought playoff baseball back to Washington in Games 3, 4 and 5 of the NLDS.
Before the nation's capital's baseball fans had their hearts broken in the final game of the series with the St. Louis Cardinals they got one chance to enjoy postseason success at home in Nationals Park when Jayson Werth's walk-off home run ended Game 4 against the Cards after perhaps the most exciting AB in D.C. baseball history, an epic, 13-pitch showdown vs Cardinals' reliever Lance Lynn that saw Werth hit a line drive home run out to the left field bullpen setting off the sort of mad, deafening, jubilant celebration you have to be a part of to truly understand but can enjoy just the same no matter where you may have been when it happened.
The Nationals were unable to win the first postseason series in the franchise's history, the first in the nation's capital since 1933, but they brought Washington its first NL East Division title and even though the actual clinching of the crown was somewhat anticlimactic coming as it did courtesy of an Atlanta Braves' loss on a night the Nats lost to the hated Philadelphia Phillies, the reception the news received on that night in Nationals Park, the reactions of the Nationals themselves and the way in which D.C. embraced and supported its team is something Frank Robinson and those who helped bring baseball back to Washington dreamed of when they made the move. The Nats won the NL East. The Nats won the NL East...
• Watch it one more time?:
(Warning - The crowd is loud and the audio's not great in the following clips, but it's still fun to listen to the celebration. Adjust audio as necessary. You've been warned...)
- 00:13 - 00:26 - Crowd noise then Jayson Werth talking to reporters about winning division.
- 00:35 - 00:46 - Ryan Zimmerman talks about everything coming together for Nats.
- 00:46 - 2:27 - Adam LaRoche (soft-spoken) talks about what it means for D.C. to win NL East, what it means for players like Zim. Having to delay hunting season.
- 2:33 - 4:15 - Bryce Harper talks to reporters about winning the division, not wanting to mess things up when he came up, wanting to win 20 more division titles.
- 00:00 - 00:55 - Harper again, talks up his teammates.
- 00:56 - 1:07 - D.C. GM Mike Rizzo emerges from clubhouse. "Rizzo, Rizzo, Rizzo" chant begins.
- 1:07 - 1:27 - Harper on Strasburg being shut down. Getting to go all out next season.
- 1:28 - 2:34 - Gio Gonzalez talks about winning division, his fellow pitchers and getting to the postseason on a night they lost.