In a season the Washington Nationals hope to fill with milestones, few in the regular season will match the significance of the one the team achieved on Monday.
Ross Detwiler pitched seven shutout innings and Adam LaRoche homered to lead the Nationals to a 2-1 win over the Chicago Cubs at Nationals Park, clinching a winning season for Washington for the first time since the franchise moved from Montréal after the 2004 campaign.
The Nationals retained their 6 1/2 game lead over the Atlanta Braves atop the NL East and moved a full game ahead of the Cincinnati Reds in the race for the league’s best record. And while the way the team has played this season has made the accomplishment of securing a winning record a mere formality, having it set in stone now is cause for cheer even as the team’s fans look forward.
It has been a while since long-time fans of either the franchise or the city’s baseball teams could get excited about a winning season. It is the first for the club since the 2003 season, the penultimate season in Montréal, when Frank Robinson’s Expos won 83 games behind Vladimir Guerrero and Livan Hernandez despite being shuffled off to Puerto Rico for a handful of home games. And Washington fans have waited even longer — the last team in the nation’s capital to finish above .500 was the Ted Williams-led 1969 club, which won 86 games while featuring players like Frank Howard and Dick Bosman.
The formula for success in this clincher was much the same as many of the Nationals successes in 2012 — strong starting pitching. On this Labor Day, it was Detwiler (9-6) who hardly labored at all. Continuing a streak of string starts at home, the lefty allowed only one Chicago baserunner to get to third, allowing just four hits and three walks while striking out three in his seven shutout innings.
Detwiler’s only real sweat-inducing inning may have been the fifth, which began with a leadoff walk to Dave Sappelt. Jeff Samardzija then bunted Sappelt over to second with one out and the rookie took third on a fly ball to left by Joe Mather. But Detwiler got Darwin Barney to fly out to right to end the threat.
Washington was not faring much better against Samardzija (8-13), who came one out shy of throwing a complete game against the Nationals at Wrigley Field during the first series of the season. LaRoche continued where he left off during that series however, leading off the second inning. The first baseman blasted a home run into the third deck down the line in right field, his third homer of the year against the Cubs, to give Washington a 1-0 lead that had to last until the eighth.
The insurance run — one that turned out to be very necessary — came after Samardzija departed. Bryce Harper greeted rookie lefty Jeff Beliveau with a sharp single that got through a diving Barney into right. Ryan Zimmerman followed with a double down the third-base line that got all the way into the corner, allowing Harper to motor home and double Washington’s lead.
The Cubs did rally late however. Anthony Rizzo welcomed Tyler Clippard to the game with a single to right and after a pair of flyouts, took second on defensive indifference. That proved to be large when Welington Castillo dropped a single into center to score Rizzo and bring the go-ahead run to the plate. Clippard then threw a pickoff away, allowing pinch-runner Tony Campana to go to second, before striking out Josh Vitters to close the game and earn his 30th save of the season.
It wasn’t all fun and games for the Nationals though. Left-fielder Michael Morse left the game in the fourth inning with a sore right thumb, a recurrence of a problem that has been nagging him for a while.
Champ of the Game: Ross Detwiler. Once again relying heavily on his two brands of fastball, Detwiler was sterling. The Nationals playoff rotation does not lose a thing with Detwiler slotting into Stephen Strasburg‘s spot. For the Cubs, Samardzija deserved better, but didn’t have a lineup behind him that could do anything with the bats against Detwiler. The former Notre Dame wide receiver fanned eight Nats over his seven innings.
Chump of the Game: Not many candidates. You want to bang Chad Tracy for not getting a pinch-hit? For Chicago, Beliveau was brought in to retire Harper and didn’t, setting the stage for the Nationals to tack on the run that proved to be the winner.
Next Game: The Nats and Cubs will play the second of four Tuesday night at Nationals Park at 7:05 ET. Lefty Chris Rusin (0-1. 1.80 ERA) will make his second big league start against Washington’s Edwin Jackson (8-9, 3.53).