The Nationals unveiled their 2012 NL East Champions banner on Opening Day and then proceeded to jump out to a quick lead in the division, winning four of their first five games.
And then they dropped a game in Cincinnati on April 7 and fell behind the Braves in the standings. Little did they know at the time they’d never recapture their top spot in the division.
The end result has been accepted for some time, but it became official this afternoon when the Nationals lost the first game of a doubleheader to the Marlins, 4-2. That put Atlanta 8 1/2 games up with 7 to play, clinching the division crown.
“We thought we had a chance, obviously, to contend to win the division. We think we have a chance every year,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said inside a somber Nationals clubhouse. “And we had a good team. But for whatever reason, we just got off to a slow start and they had that run in the middle of the year when they went something crazy [winning 14 in a row from July 26-Aug. 9] and built that huge lead.
“But they’re a good team. You don’t win as many games as they did without being a good team. This year they get it, and we’ll be going for it again next year. It’s just the way it goes.”
The Braves were still in the middle of their game in Chicago when the Nationals’ game went final. That was a perfect reversal of the scene one year ago when the Nationals clinched their first-ever NL East crown via Atlanta’s loss in Pittsburgh.
Upon finishing off a 5-2 victory over the Cubs, the Braves mobbed each other at the center of the diamond, then carried their celebration into the cramped visitors’ clubhouse at Wrigley Field.
Though the Nationals entered the season as the odds-on favorite to win another division title, they expected a challenge from the Braves all along. An Atlanta club that won 94 games and a Wild Card berth last year bolstered its roster with the additions of both Justin and B.J. Upton, plus Chris Johnson, and wound up running away with the the franchise’s first NL East crown since 2005.
“They balanced out their lineup,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. “They were more left-handed last year. Pretty good depth in the bullpen. They were tougher to get matchups against because of the addition of Johnson and the Uptons. Before, they didn’t really have any right-handed presence to speak of, even on the bench.”
The Nationals fell to a season-worst 16 games back on Aug. 19, then finally got themselves on track and actually managed to trim the deficit in half over the next month.
That left them wondering what might have been had they simply turned things on before it was, for all practical matters, too late.
“If we did the things we were capable of,” Johnson said, “we would have been right there.”