The Washington Nationals -- who never posted a winning record, never reached the playoffs and never won a division title in their first seven seasons in the District -- didn't just knock down all those barriers in year eight. They managed to knock down an even bigger one: Posting the best record in the major leagues.
With a 5-1 victory over the Phillies during Wednesday's regular-season finale, the Nationals capped off a 98-64 season that wasn't surpassed by any other franchise in the big leagues and was good enough to secure home-field advantage as long as their playoff run extends.
No matter how much optimism surrounded the organization when it gathered in Viera, Fla., in late February for spring training, few could have dreamed this big.
"It's quite an accomplishment," Ryan Zimmerman, the only player to appear in a game in all eight of the Nationals seasons, 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. But we have a lot more to accomplish, hopefully."
They'll wipe the slate clean and begin that journey Sunday, on the road for Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the winner of Friday's winner-take-all Wild Card game between the Braves and Cardinals.
They'll enter the postseason as the No. 1 seed, a distinction that usually includes a target on their backs. But the Nationals are the only new faces among the five NL playoff participants, a group that includes the last two World Series champions (St. Louis and San Francisco) and two franchises with rich traditions that reached the postseason as recently as 2010 (Atlanta and Cincinnati).
And, as recent postseason history has shown, seeding rarely means much in October.
"I mean, once you get in, you're in, no matter how yet get there," said Jayson Werth, one of the few Nationals with significant playoff experience. "From there you need to be good, you need to be lucky, you've got to show up. It's not easy. Winning's not easy. Winning the whole thing is tough. It takes a lot. We're in good position. We've come this far and we're here. We've got a chance."
The Nationals gave themselves the best chance possible by winning Wednesday's finale and ensuring they would earn the top seed over the Reds. They did so by getting 6 23 strong innings from Edwin Jackson, who became the fifth member of the rotation to get 10 wins this year, and home runs from Zimmerman, Tyler Moore and Michael Morse, who earned a curtain call after his eighth-inning blast to right field sealed this victory.
Win No. 98 came against the club that had ruled the NL East the last five seasons but faded to an 81-81 finish this year, and it came with a helping of sour grapes from one of the Phillies' long-time leaders.
"They had a good year," shortstop Jimmy Rollins said of a Washington club that finished 17 games ahead of his Phillies. "They're a talented team. Just playing against them for a while, you know they're talented. You always knew if they put it together and found some pitching ... and they've had the opportunity to have some big draft picks, and those guys have made it up to the big leagues and it's all come together for them. So that's great for them. But with us being healthy, you know, they're still second place. But we weren't."
Six members of the Phillies' projected Opening Day lineup and rotation (Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Placido Polanco) missed a combined 309 games this season, a tough obstacle to overcome. Rollins, though, apparently forgot that five members of the Nationals' projected Opening Day lineup (Werth, Zimmerman, Morse, Ian Desmond, Wilson Ramos) and their projected closer (Drew Storen) missed a combined 380 games.
"We've played well all year long, dealt with a lot of adversity," Desmond said.
Perhaps the Nationals-Phillies rivalry that perked up in May when Cole Hamels admitted he intentionally threw at rookie Bryce Harper will carry over into 2013. Before that, though, the Nationals have more pressing matters.
They'll take Thursday off, return to Nationals Park for a closed workout on Friday, then watch the Wild Card game (scheduled to begin at 5:07 p.m.) to learn the identity of their first-ever playoff opponent.
They all insisted they have no preference between the Braves and Cardinals. Above all else, they understand every team they play from this point forward presents a real challenge.
There are no gimmes in October. That's the reward for winning 98 of 162 games.
"This is what it's all about," Werth said. "This is what you play your whole life for, to get to this point, and we've got a chance to do something special here. We've got a good team and a good group of guys, and I think the city can be proud of that."