Your National League East champions

The first Nats cap I ever owned is old and faded now. My wife bought it for me in the winter of 2005, when the team opened up a souvenir stand at old RFK Stadium before it had even played a game in Washington. And in the subsequent years, it witnessed a lot of godawful baseball.

It was the 2008 team that almost broke me. That was the worst excuse for a baseball team I’ve ever seen in person, displaying an enormous amount of pure incompetence over a wide variety of baseball skills. From a blog post I wrote back then: “It is an embarrassment to watch this selection of no-future pathetic hitters step up to the plate in a major league ballpark, and the Nats are the laughingstock of baseball now.”

That team’s No. 1 starter that year was John Lannan. He went 9-15 but somehow kept his ERA under 4 — no small accomplishment, considering the Nats in the field were so horrible and gave up ‘hits’ that other teams would have turned into outs.

Lannan took the mound again Monday for a much different game than the kind he faced in ’08. He didn’t even make the team this year in the spring — a sign of the Nats’ changing fortunes because he had his best season in 2011 — but he was called up from the minors in September. On this night, in a dramatic bit of irony for him and a dramatic bit of excitement for me, he had the chance to clinch the National League East against the hated Philadelphia Phillies.

Lannan acquitted himself just fine but the rest of the team didn’t as the Nats lost 2-0. It didn’t matter: The Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Atlanta Braves to give the Nats the division anyway. The team celebrated in the clubhouse and then on the field, and my prediction here that the Braves would pass the Nats was proved wrong.

And now that the season’s over, here’s the thing that is most exciting about this Nats team: It’s built in a way that will help it win tournament baseball, which is a different game than regular season baseball. The Nats’ underrated offense comes at you in waves with one of the most balanced lineups I’ve ever seen. Back that up with a deep pitching staff (although the starters right now are suspect after Zimmermann, and that may be the team’s weak spot) and a solid bullpen (thank you for returning to form, Drew Storen), and you have a ball team that is relentless and very difficult to manage against. Things are going so well for the Nats that even Teddy is a winner now:

We won’t find out until the end of the night tonight whether the Nats will remain the NL top seed and face the wild card winner next, or will be the No. 2 team and play the Giants. Despite the pain of travel the Nats would face, I’d prefer the latter — not because I think the Giants are weaker, but because their big ballpark is so well-suited for the doubles-hitting, strong-pitching Nats.

If we make it to Game Four of the division series, or the second home game of the championship series, I’ll be at the park, wearing my faded blue cap. It’s been atop my head for so much baseball pain. Time for it to be a part of the glory.

Previously: A night at the opera at the ballpark | Hokum home


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