On Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012 the Washington Nationals clinched a berth in the Major League Baseball postseason with a 4-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
This will mark the first time a baseball team that plays its home games in Washington D.C. will be in the playoffs since 1933. It will also be just the second playoff appearance ever for the franchise formerly known as the Montreal Expos in 43 years of play.
To say this is a big deal is an understatement. This is the first Nationals team with a winning record, and only the second to even reach .500. With a record of 93-61, they are in prime position to clinch a division title and home field advantage in the playoffs.
The architect of it all has been General Manager Mike Rizzo. When Rizzo took over the team in 2009, he laid out a plan for success: athletes in the field, flamethrowers on the mound and investments in the draft.
After three years, the plan has come to fruition, as Rizzo has overhauled the entire roster — only two starters wore a Nationals uniform prior to 2009. Now, the Nationals are a unique blend of power and speed and an all-around talented team who are a formidable opponent in all aspects of the game.
Most of the credit for this special season however, should go to Manager Davey Johnson, who is now taking his fourth ball club to the postseason. This makes him the third such manager to do so in the history of baseball, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Johnson has dealt with significant injuries to his starting shortstop, third baseman, catcher, right fielder and left fielder, as well as his closer and best pinch hitter while leading the Nationals to the best record in the Majors.
Johnson has pressed every button correctly, getting excellent years out of players like Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Adam LaRoche, who many Nationals observers had given up on. Johnson also kept his young team in check, not allowing them to crack under the pressure their first playoff chase brought.
But as Johnson often says, his job is made easier by the bucket loads of talent on the Nationals roster.
The Nationals are a deft mix of young and old, getting key contributions from rookies such as Bryce Harper, Steve Lombardozzi and Tyler Moore along with veterans like Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche.
Offensively, the Nationals have a potent lineup of home run threats — six players with double-digit home runs, and are ranked second in the National League with 180 homers. They also mix in speed and timely hitting to score an above average 692 runs.
But the Nationals bread is buttered by their pitching staff, which ranks top five in the Major Leagues in ERA (t-first), quality starts (third), strikeouts (fourth) and batting average against (second). Led by 20 game winner Gio Gonzalez and ace Stephen Strasburg, their pitching staff is full of power pitchers who can blow the ball past opposing hitters easily — earning them the nickname K Street.
While many thought they were one year away from contention, 2012 has become the year of the Nationals, with significant increases in wins, attendance, TV ratings and media attention both locally and nationally.
Because of the new one-game wild card playoff, the Nationals celebrated the occasion with a subdued champagne toast. But with the number of young, controllable pieces on this team, they should have plenty more opportunities for a more raucous celebration in the future.