PITTSBURGH -- What felt inevitable all spring and summer became official Saturday night. For the third time in five years, the Nationals are National League East champions.
The Nats beat the Pirates, 6-1, then waited 23 minutes until the Mets' 10-8 loss to the Phillies in New York, which officially clinched the division title and punched Washington's postseason ticket. Then the celebration was on.
"You just knew it was going to happen," right-hander Max Scherzer said. "We could feel it in the air, we started celebrating. We knew everything that's been happening, we're going to be popping champagne in here. It was just one of those things you could feel unfold."
Washington has spent 171 days in first place this season, trailing by the smallest of margins (a half-game) for four days in early May. Otherwise, the club's status atop the NL East has been unquestioned.
With a magic number of two, the Nats needed a win and a Mets loss Saturday night. New York fell behind early and couldn't recover. Neither could Pittsburgh, which dropped back to .500 following another shaky start by Ivan Nova and a week's worth of sloppy defense behind him. The Nats scored six runs on eight hits in Nova's four innings of work, but only three of those runs were charged to Nova.
"First inning, [Nova] was elevated, wasn't as sharp. After that, I thought he was getting into a very good spot, a very competitive spot," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We more or less took him out of the game with our defense."
The Nationals jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first inning, when Nova gave up four singles and hit two batters. Stephen Drew delivered the biggest hit, a two-run single to center. Washington put together another three-run frame in the fourth without an extra-base hit, as Nova allowed two bunt singles and uncorked a wild pitch while the Bucs committed three errors behind him.
"That's what I came here for," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. "This is what I expect and I think this is what these guys expected, too. From Spring Training, we talked about where we wanted to go, what we had to do, and they worked hard for it. And I mean this is something. I want these guys to enjoy it and just have a good time."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Short outing for Ross raises questions: As the Nationals try to line up their postseason rotation behind Scherzer and Tanner Roark, who will almost certainly start the first two games, there are questions remaining about the next spots. Washington is trying to increase the stamina for Ross, who was making his second start since right shoulder inflammation sidelined him on July 2. The Nationals planned on him lasting at least four or five innings, but Ross labored in the third inning before he was pulled with the bases loaded, having thrown 63 pitches.
Indefensible: Coming off a poor three-inning start in Cincinnati, Nova couldn't return to his second-half form against the Nationals. But he didn't get much help from his defense in the third inning, either. The Nats hit two balls out of the infield in the three-run frame, and both were caught for outs. The problem came when Washington put the ball on the ground. The first two batters reached safely on bunts, and catcher Francisco Cervelli flung Ross' attempt into right field when John Jaso and Adam Frazier neglected to cover first base.
"He tried to hold his throw, ball came out of his hand. Miscommunication over there on the right side," Hurdle said. "We've got to have somebody at the bag. We didn't have anybody at the bag."
Shortstop Sean Rodriguez tried to force out Danny Espinosa at the plate, a decision backed by Hurdle, but his throw didn't get to the plate in time. Finally, the Pirates tried to turn a double play on Bryce Harper's grounder to Frazier, but his throw pulled Rodriguez off the bag at second -- then Harper beat Rodriguez's throw to first base, allowing another run to score.
"We need to get two outs there. The throw wasn't good, feed wasn't good, took him off the bag," Hurdle said. "It's a bad defensive inning."
Strong performance from Lopez: The Nationals have to be encouraged by what they saw from Lopez, as he made a case as a potential long reliever for the team's postseason roster. After a short outing from Ross, Lopez entered the game in the fourth inning and fired 5 1/3 scoreless innings with five strikeouts, before he was removed after allowing two runners to reach in the ninth inning. After an inconsistent Major League debut as a starter, Lopez has pitched well in relief. In three appearances out of the bullpen, Lopez has allowed two runs in 10 1/3 innings with eight strikeouts.
Ring it: Pirates rookie Josh Bell provided the Bucs' lone offensive highlight, launching his third Major League homer into the right-field seats off Ross in the third inning. Bell has delivered on his potential at the plate since he was called up from Triple-A, batting .287/.383/.444 in 128 plate appearances. Bell has also been thrust into more outfield duty than expected, as was the case Saturday night with Gregory Polanco (facial contusion) and Starling Marte (lower back tightness) still sidelined. The Pirates hope this late-season experience will benefit their younger players like Bell and Frazier, as well as their rookie-laden rotation.
"I got one ball good," Bell said. "We didn't capitalize for the most part all night." More >
"I don't know if I've ever rooted for the Phillies so hard." -- former Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy, on watching the end of the New York loss
"You relish these moments because you play all season for these moments. This is what you play for all year. This is what you get to Spring Training early for. This is why you train all offseason. This is what it's all about. You got to give yourself a chance, you got to get to the postseason. This is necessary. The guys that haven't done this, this means a lot to them. But this is just step one, so you got to keep it in perspective." -- outfielder Jayson Werth, on clinching the NL East
UPON FURTHER REVIEW Ryan Zimmerman had a home run off Drew Hutchison taken off the board in the fifth inning, when the Pirates challenged whether it was fair or foul. Even Zimmerman seemed unsure, pausing several seconds before beginning a slow trot around the bases. Pittsburgh's challenge resulted in the call being overturned, and the score remained 6-1. Zimmerman wound up popping out to Jaso.
WHAT'S NEXT Nationals: After clinching the NL East, the Nationals will send right-hander A.J. Cole (1-2, 4.68 ERA) to the mound for Sunday's series finale against the Pirates at 1:35 p.m. ET. In six starts while filling the rotation spot left vacant by the injured Stephen Strasburg, Cole has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 34-to-11.
Pirates: Top prospect Tyler Glasnow will make his third Major League start Sunday afternoon at PNC Park, wrapping up the Pirates' three-game series against the Nationals. Glasnow pitched well out of the bullpen this month, and the Bucs hope the brief stint in relief will serve him well as he returns to the rotation.