When Washington Nationals president of baseball operations and general manager Mike Rizzo hired Dusty Baker as the team’s manager, fans were unsure of what to think.
Baker had been out of baseball for two seasons and was tasked with getting a team considered a National League favorite back into the playoffs after a surprise absence in 2015.
After Saturday night’s 6-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates — and with a little help from a 10-7 Philadelphia Phillies victory over the New York Mets — the Nationals clinched the NL East division title.
Just seconds after the Phillies’ win, the Nationals, who were anxiously waiting in the clubhouse, erupted in celebration, and the beer and champagne started pouring.
“That’s what I came here for,” Baker said of the Nationals heading back to the playoffs. “I’m going to let these gentlemen have a great time tonight. It’s back to work tomorrow. I’m just so happy for these guys, and I love them.”
Even from the start of spring training, Baker had his team locked in, announcing his goal was for the team to win at least 15 games each month.
The players listened, and, with this consistent message, the Nationals led the NL East all season.
“He brings an energy, synergy and an upbeat attitude all the time,” Rizzo said of his manager. “You need to be optimistic and positive, and Dusty brings that all to the table.”
Pitcher Max Scherzer, who couldn’t wait for this past off-season to be over because he wanted another crack at the playoffs, was holding court with a few reporters and smoking a victory cigar.
“This one means a lot because each one means something personal to you,” Scherzer said. “This is one is personal because of last year and how we didn’t finish strong. That really stung the whole off-season. I hated last off-season. So to take care of business and win the division is huge.”
A big reason for Saturday’s win was a fourth inning where the Pirates had three separate errors that led to three runs.
The first came when pinch-hitter Brian Goodwin hit a bunt single. Catcher Francisco Cervelli fielded the ball and, as he was falling down, threw the ball between first and second base, nowhere near where a Pirate was standing. Danny Espinosa took third base as a result.
Then, already up 3-1, Washington’s Jayson Werth hit a ground ball to Sean Rodriguez, and the Pirates’ shortstop tried to throw home to avoid a fourth run scoring A good throw likely would have nailed Espinosa at the plate, but, instead, the throw was off target, and the Nationals scored their fourth run of the night.
Adam Frazier prides himself on being able to make a defensive difference no matter where he’s placed on the baseball diamond, but, playing second base Saturday, his throwing error on a Bryce Harper force play allowed an additional run to score.
“There’s no excuse. That’s a tailor-made double play there,” Frazier said. “I take pride in my defense, so making an error makes me mad. (Starting pitcher Ivan) Nova is working his butt off out there, and it was a tough play in a big situation, and we kind of let him down tonight.”
Nova (12-8) followed up his worst start as a Pirate (Sunday, when he went just three innings and allowed five runs on 10 hits) with a four-inning outing where he allowed six runs (three earned) on eight hits.
Meanwhile, Nationals starter Joe Ross had issues getting the Pirates out, but only one run managed to score — a Josh Bell home run.
Ross lasted 2.2 innings allowing a run on five hits.
Reynaldo Lopez (4-3) pitched 5.1 scoreless innings in relief, and Pittsburgh only managed five base runners.
The Pirates left 11 men on base.
“It was a long night,” Bell said. “Ross got out of jams, and the next pitcher that came through really dealt, so you just tip your cap.”
The loud and victorious Nationals clubhouse included former Pirates closer Mark Melancon, who is in the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season.
Melancon was aware of the irony surrounding this victory. With the Pirates, all three playoff berths were earned on the road, and so was this fourth one with Washington — even though Melancon’s children still consider PNC Park home.
“It feels good, just like all of them,” he said of making the playoffs again. “What an accomplishment. These guys are awesome, I can’t say enough.”
The Nationals were clearly excited about clinching the division title, but they know there’s still a lot more baseball to play, and that starts Sunday when a to-be-announced Nationals starter faces Pittsburgh’s Tyler Glasnow (0-1, 4.11 ERA).
“As great as this is, tomorrow will be a nice hangover,” Scherzer said. “It’ll be a hell of a hangover, actually. Monday, that’s the time you get hot. Everyone says they are meaningless games, but they aren’t for the winners.”
Image credit: Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press