Baker's club clinches 4th division title in 6 years, looks ahead to October
By Richard Justice
That Stephen Strasburg would start and win this game for the Washington Nationals on a division-clinching Sunday feels right. He might just represent this franchise's best chance of writing a different kind of postseason ending.
Besides that, winning the National League East -- accomplished with Washington beating the Phillies, 3-2, and Atlanta beating the Marlins, 10-8 -- is not the end of this story. The Nationals still have plenty to play for in the final three weeks of the regular season, and that's the beauty of baseball's new format, in which home-field advantage in the World Series is determined by best record in the regular season.
Washington (88-55) is just four games behind the Dodgers (92-51) in the race for best National League record -- and home-field advantage through the NL playoffs. Likewise, home-field advantage in the World Series still isn't settled, with the Indians (87-56) and Astros (86-57) in the mix with the Dodgers and Nationals.
Now let's pause to appreciate what the Nationals have done in a larger sense. Here's to an extraordinary run of success, the very thing that's among the hardest to do in professional sports, the thing an entire system is set up to counter. For the last six seasons, they've won 546 regular-season games, second-most in the Major Leagues.
To be so consistently good over such a long stretch of time speaks volumes about the organization, that is: ownership, management, players and all those dozens of instructors, scouts, trainers and others who've contributed in a variety of ways. In baseball, it truly does take an entire village.
Regardless of what happens in the postseason -- and that's ultimately how this season will be remembered -- the Nationals have again sent their fans home happy night after night.
Perhaps the highest compliment an organization can be paid is also its greatest curse: The Nationals have won so much that it's now expected of them. Know this, Nats fans: It's not as easy as your guys make it look.
On Sunday, the Nationals clinched their fourth NL East title in six seasons, and this is precisely what Mike Rizzo set out to do when he joined the Nationals as assistant general manager in 2007 and was named GM in 2009, adding the title of president of baseball operations in 2013.
He had two goals: To build something that could sustain success and to do it by collecting as many power arms as possible.
Rizzo has done as good of a job as any executive in baseball. He has built a great organization, and that's the crest he's riding with this latest first-place finish. He would want you to know that he represents Nationals owner Ted Lerner and his management team and also manager Dusty Baker and all the players. Every little thing is connected to every other little thing.
Yes, we measure true greatness by the number of championships, and the Nationals don't have one of those. In three previous trips to the postseason, they've yet to win a series. That's the price for consistently playing at the highest level, and the Nationals understand this.
The Nationals will make another run at a championship this October, and only a fool would bet against them. Here's what they've got going for them: pretty much everything. They've got greatness at the front of their rotation and competence at the back of the bullpen.
They've got one of baseball's deepest lineups, led by an injured Harper and Rendon, who will both almost certainly finish high in the NL Most Valuable Player Award voting.
If you're looking for reasons to believe in the Nationals in October, that's easy. Specifically:
1. Strasburg has never been better, and we've seen the impact a bona fide No. 1 starter can have on a postseason series. In five starts since returning from the disabled list, Strasburg has allowed two earned runs and struck out 41 in 35 innings.
2. Scherzer's 2.32 ERA is the best of his career, more than a half-run better than 2016 when he rode a 2.96 mark to his second Cy Young Award. Whether Baker picks Scherzer or Strasburg to start Game 1 of the NL Division Series does not matter. Together, they're capable of delivering the nation's capital its first World Series win in 83 years.
3. The lineup may be the NL's deepest, especially since shortstop Trea Turner returned from the disabled list. The Nationals won't breathe easy until right fielder Harper, sidelined with a hyperextended left knee since Aug. 12, gets back on the field, but he still has three weeks.
4. The skipper. About the only thing Baker hasn't done is win a championship as a manager. This is the ninth time he has guided a team to the postseason, and this club may just represent his best chance. He's as beloved as almost any man in the game. If the baseball gods are doing the karma thing, it could be Baker's turn.
Regardless of how it all plays out, the Nationals have completely changed the way they're viewed inside the game. In the four seasons before that 2012 playoff appearance, they averaged 95 losses a season and cracked the 100-loss threshold twice. And so here's to more October baseball in Washington and another run at the mountaintop. There's nothing better.
Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.