WASHINGTON – The Nationals came up with an interesting way to win their first-ever division title. It wound up having nothing to do with their play on the field — but they’ll take it.
Darin Ruf’s two-run triple in the second inning held up, and Kyle Kendrick earned his career-high 11th win as the Phillies blanked the Nationals 2-0 Monday night.
But it wasn’t a bad night after all for Washington as the Nationals clinched the National League East anyway thanks to Atlanta’s 2-1 loss to the Pirates. It’s the team’s first division title since arriving in Washington seven years ago.
The stadium crowd burst out into celebration once news of the Atlanta loss was announced during the ninth inning. Fans began standing and cheering, holding up banners, and the players were high-fiving, laughing and smiling.
“It was one of those exciting [moments],” said Washington left-hander Gio Gonzalez. “Atlanta had a great year too, and they are still in it. But at the same time, it feels great to be a division champ.”
The Nationals wanted the division title, not the wild-card berth. Manager Davey Johnson had been pushing them on that throughout the last few weeks. He didn’t want them in that one-game all-or-nothing playoff involving the wild-card teams, and the Nationals finally got their wish.
“We knew we were going to lose [Stephen] Strasburg, and we had a lot of injuries along the way and it didn’t matter,” said outfielder Jayson Werth. “The guys kept plugging along and playing hard every day.”
The Nationals now are hoping to earn the top spot in the National League playoffs and are battling with Cincinnati for that.
The Reds lost Monday night and are deadlocked with the Nationals at 96-64 with two games to go. Washington would get the tiebreaker if it finishes with the same record as the Reds.
“We really didn’t know what to do,” said Nationals’ pitcher Jordan Zimmermann when they found out the Braves had already lost in Pittsburgh during the ninth inning in D.C. “We were going to lose the game, but we got to go on the field. We took it in and celebrated in there and obviously we are out here now.”
That made a tough night much more enjoyable. The Nationals couldn’t find much offense on this night against Kendrick and three Phillies relievers. Washington finished with just five hits overall.
Kendrick (11-12) gave up just four hits over seven innings and kept Washington quiet for much of the game. Phillippe Aumont earned his second save by closing the game in the ninth.
“That is the first time I ever won and got beat,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said.
Even without Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins in their lineup, the Phillies were able to generate offense early, and that proved to be enough on this night.
Washington starter John Lannan (4-1) struggled to throw strikes, allowing the two-run triple to Ruf in the second inning to give the Phillies a 2-0 lead.
Kendrick was able to battle through a two-on, one-out jam in the bottom of the second by getting Lannan to ground into force play.
Philadelphia threatened again in the fourth when Ty Wigginton singled and Domonic Brown doubled to put men on second and third with one out. But after an intentional walk, first baseman Adam LaRoche grabbed Michael Martinez’s grounder and quickly stepped on first and threw home to get Wigginton easily at the plate for Washington’s third double play.
Kendrick got the Nationals to hit the ball on the ground early as 11 of his first 12 outs were groundouts. He also was able to get LaRoche and Michael Morse called out on strikes to end scoring threats in the fifth and sixth innings.
Nationals reliever Craig Stammen struck out six consecutive batters during his time on the mound. With Lannan’s strikeout to end the fifth, the Nationals’ matched a team record with seven consecutive strikeouts.
NOTES: Johnson said he would prefer to begin the postseason on Sunday, Oct. 7. The Nationals could also start on Saturday, Oct. 6. Johnson would like to have his 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez pitch Sunday on five days’ rest. The left-hander is listed as Tuesday’s starter against the Phillies…Nationals’ catcher Kurt Suzuki has started 10 straight games and Johnson said he will keep him in for the duration…The Phillies need one win in the series to guarantee a winning record in the regular season and a season series victory over the Nationals…Rollins (calf) and Howard (broken toe) were not in the starting lineup Monday.