WASHINGTON — Wasn’t all that long ago — in 2008 and 2009, actually — that the Washington Nationals were losing 100 games a season and finishing with the worst record in the majors.
Look at them now.
Already the NL East champions, the Nationals closed the regular season by securing home-field advantage throughout the postseason, beating the Philadelphia Phillies 5-1 Wednesday for their majors-high 98th victory.
“It’s quite an accomplishment,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “Obviously winning the division was a goal and now we’ve done that and we have a chance to go do some stuff in the playoffs. This is a great season, a great team, a good group of guys, and we accomplished a lot that we should be proud of.”
He continued: “But we have a lot more to accomplish, hopefully.”
Fitted for hats with postseason patches before the game, the Nationals will open the playoffs on the road Sunday at the winner of Friday’s wild-card game between Atlanta and St. Louis. Game 2 will also be at the wild-card winner’s stadium, before the best-of-five series shifts to Washington. A team from the nation’s capital hasn’t participated in Major League Baseball action beyond the regular season since the Senators lost the 1933 World Series.
The only downer Wednesday for the Nationals: Manager Davey Johnson missed the end of the game after feeling numbness in his left leg, leaving the dugout to get X-rays and treatment from a team doctor. Johnson — at 69, the oldest skipper in the majors — said he does not expect to have any trouble traveling or managing in the playoffs.
Asked his level of concern about Johnson, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo replied: “None.”
Otherwise, it was a festive day for the announced crowd of 37,075 and the Nationals (98-64), a club that only once had finished as high as third place since moving from Montreal in 2005. This is the first time the Expos/Nationals franchise has won its division in a complete season.
Zimmerman hit his 25th homer of the season moments after the Teddy Roosevelt mascot won the fourth-inning Presidents Race at Nationals Park for the first time. Edwin Jackson (10-11) threw 6 2-3 innings to become the fifth member of the rotation with at least 10 wins. Rookie Tyler Moore’s 10th homer made him the seven player with at least that many.
“I like where we’re sitting headed into the postseason,” left fielder Jayson Werth said.
He signed with Washington as a $126 million free agent before last season, leaving a Philadelphia club he helped win the 2008 World Series. This year’s Phillies finished third in the NL East at 81-81, ending a streak of nine consecutive winning seasons and five playoff appearances in a row.
After the game, the Phillies announced they fired first base coach Sam Perlozzo, bench coach Pete Mackanin and hitting coach Greg Gross. Expect more switches to come.
“We’re definitely going to have some changes on our roster,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. “How many or what, I don’t really know.”
His shortstop, Jimmy Rollins, praised the Nationals as “a talented team,” but added that if the Phillies had been healthy this season, Washington would have been no better than a second-place club.
Rollins sat out Wednesday, when Jackson gave up one run and six hits and left to a standing ovation, one of several on a muggy afternoon with the temperature in the 70s.
“At this point, it’s fun facts for the organization,” Jackson said about the team’s win total. “But at this point, in the postseason, if you lose out, all that gets washed away.”
Teddy’s triumph ended a losing streak that drew attention even from the White House press secretary and Sen. John McCain. Teddy had lost more than 500 times since 2006, when the Nationals began holding races among 10-foot-tall foam renderings of Roosevelt, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln at home games.
Zimmerman then led off the bottom of the fourth with a solo shot, Washington’s first scoring off Cliff Lee (6-9).
Asked whether he’d been inspired by the outcome of the mascot race, Zimmerman rolled his eyes.
“I am so glad Teddy won, so we can stop talking about Teddy. People get more excited for a mascot race than a game,” Zimmerman said, before adding in a voice drenched with sarcasm: “Yes, I’m excited Teddy won. I’m ecstatic.”
The next hitter, Michael Morse, doubled and eventually scored. In the eighth, Morse added his 18th homer, a two-run shot off reliever Jonathan Papelbon that drew a curtain call. Morse got treatment after the game for a sore left hamstring, which bothered him on his home run trot.
Lee, who finished with a losing record for the first time since 2007, departed after the sixth. He allowed eight hits and three runs, didn’t walk a batter and struck out seven.
In the eighth, Papelbon lost control of a breaking pitch that buzzed near Zimmerman’s head, drawing boos from the stands. Papelbon wound up walking Zimmerman, who tipped his cap in reaction to loud cheers as he walked to the dugout, replaced on first base by pinch-runner Bryce Harper. Morse followed with a drive to right-center.
The 19-year-old Harper and first baseman Adam LaRoche were out of the starting lineup — a chance to get a breather before the grind of the postseason begins.
“There’s no point to go out there and try to do a little extra, try to play a little harder. For whatever reason in baseball, that has a tendency to work in reverse,” LaRoche said. “What we’ve done up to this point has obviously been good enough.”
NOTES: By virtue of the NL’s victory in the All-Star game, the league’s representative gets home-field advantage against the AL in the World Series. … The season’s total attendance of 2,370,794 — an average of 30,010 — was nearly 50,000 higher than the previous high at Nationals Park, in 2008, the first season at the new ballpark. … Philadelphia 1B Darin Ruf delivered a sac fly in the fourth. He has driven in all eight Phillies runs in their last four games against Washington. … Phillies RHP Tyson Brummett made his major league debut in the eighth, allowing two singles and striking out two batters. … The Phillies’ nine winning seasons matched a team record set from 1975-83. They went 81-81 in 1984.