After 79 years, playoff baseball back in D.C.

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After 79 years, playoff baseball back in D.C.

From Comcast SportsNet

WASHINGTON (AP) -- As the Washington Nationals' first draft pick back in June 2005, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was there almost from the start, through the various last-place finishes and the consecutive 100-loss seasons.

He stuck around, signing a couple of long-term contracts, always convinced he would be a part of a winner one day.

That day finally arrived Monday night, when the Nationals clinched their first NL East title since moving from Montreal seven years ago.

And so, his gray championship T-shirt soaked with champagne and beer, white ski goggles dangling around his neck, Zimmerman -- low-key and straight-faced through the ups and downs (well, mostly downs) -- paused in front of the couple of thousand fans in the stands cheering and chanting during the players' on-field celebration. On his way to the home clubhouse at Nationals Park, Zimmerman raised both arms and bellowed.

"The odds were in my favor, that I was going to win at some point here, right?" Zimmerman said moments earlier, smiling as wide a smile as can be.

"For all the things we've been through, all the things this organization's been through," he added, "to be right here, right now, it's pretty impressive."

Despite being beaten 2-0 by the Philadelphia Phillies on Monday night, the Nationals earned the division championship, because the second-place Atlanta Braves lost 2-1 at the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Washington, in first place since May 22, leads Atlanta by three games with two to play in the regular season. The Braves' loss finished as the top of the ninth inning ended in Washington, and the Nationals congratulated each other in their dugout with hugs, high-fives and spiked gloves.

"The way it happened tonight doesn't really matter," Zimmerman said. "We put ourselves in that position to have the luxury of having the other team have to play perfect baseball. We played a great 159, 160 games to get to that point, and we should be commended for that."

Amid the postgame delirium on the field, the crushed cans and strewn bottles collecting in the grass, pitcher Gio Gonzalez grabbed 86-year-old team owner Ted Lerner and steered him toward the gaggle of players.

"Ted, this is your party!" the effervescent left-hander yelled. Then, turning toward teammates, Gonzalez shouted: "Hey! Who's got the cooler? This is the man, right here!"

All in all, 21-game winner Gonzalez and the rest of the first team in 79 years to bring postseason baseball back to the nation's capital threw quite a victory party. Thanks to strong pitching from Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper's burst of energy and Adam LaRoche's slugging, the Nationals won enough from April through September that even a loss on the first day of October could not stop them from achieving the sort of success that seemed so far away only a few years ago.

"The puzzle came together," Lerner said, "a little earlier than we expected."

When Michael Morse led off the bottom of the ninth, the PA announcer informed the crowd that the home team was the champion, and when the game ended red fireworks lit the night sky with the Capitol building off in the distance beyond left field. The scoreboard declared "NL East Division Champions."

It was the second division crown in franchise history. The Montreal Expos won the NL East in 1981, a strike-shortened season, by beating the Phillies in a best-of-five playoff.

"This is incredible. The excitement. The joy. The fans. Smiles on everyone's faces, the excitement that's going on," Gonzalez said. "Everyone here just witnessed history. Hopefully we can try to continue that journey."

When the game ended, the Phillies -- winners of the previous five NL East titles; already eliminated from playoff contention this year -- gathered in the middle of the diamond for regular post-victory handshakes.

"Made me mad. Yes it did. Very much so. I'm a bad loser," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said about watching Washington clinch against his club. "Nobody should be a good loser. I'm a bad loser and I always will be."

The Nationals, meanwhile, collected in their home clubhouse for alcohol-spraying. They gathered around general manager Mike Rizzo and dumped bubbly over his shaved head. Harper, who has more homers (22) than years on earth (19), shared some apple cider with LaRoche's 9-year-old son, Drake.

"I'll remember being in the scrum in the middle of the clubhouse with all the guys, just elated and all together," Rizzo said later. "We live with each other for seven months a year. (This is the) culmination of all that emotion and such a successful season for us."

On Sept. 20, the Nationals assured themselves of no worse than an NL wild-card berth -- and guaranteed Washington a postseason game for the first time since the Senators lost the 1933 World Series to the New York Giants.

But even on that night of success, Washington manager Davey Johnson made clear he wasn't all that interested in merely getting a chance to play in a one-game, in-or-out, wild-card playoff. No, he wanted his team to focus on bigger prizes at hand.

With Washington back home from a six-game road trip and on the verge of a big accomplishment, the first roar of the night from the crowd came a few minutes before the first pitch, when a booming voice over the loudspeakers let everyone know that the home team's "magic number is down to one!"

In the end, Kyle Kendrick (11-12) pitched seven scoreless innings for the win. John Lannan (4-1) gave up two runs in five innings for Washington. That the Nationals lost did not matter, of course.

The spectators often rose at key moments, whether their team was at the plate or in the field. Fans also reacted with applause and cheers when the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center field showed that Pittsburgh had taken a lead against Atlanta in the fifth inning.

All in all, quite a contrast from the mostly silent, mostly empty ballparks that were home to Nationals teams that lost 100 games apiece in 2008 and 2009. Then again, those worst-in-baseball clubs earned No. 1 overall picks in the amateur draft that turned into Strasburg and Harper.

Rizzo also oversaw a rebuilding of a farm system and two very key additions from outside the organization: Gonzalez, acquired from Oakland for four prospects last offseason; and Jayson Werth, signed away from Philadelphia with a 126 million free-agent deal in December 2010.

He was right in the middle of all the celebrating, twirling a shirt overhead in the middle of a circle of bouncing, fist-pumping, alcohol-dumping teammates.

Werth was brought to Washington, in part, to show the club how to win, having been a part of the Phillies' perennial division champions and 2008 World Series winners. And so it was somehow fitting that the Nationals' title came on a night when they were facing the Phillies.

"These guys have been through a lot. That just goes to show you it's not easy. It's not easy getting to this point," Werth said. "Luck plays into it a lot. You've got to be on good teams -- and I'm on a good team."

CSN's Buckets List: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

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CSN's Buckets List: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

Each Monday through the Final Four, our own Robbie Buckets -- known in some circles as Rob Snyder, associate producer at CSN -- will take a look at the world of college basketball: Games to watch each week, players who might be on the Celtics' radar come draft time, what's going on locally . . . and, of course, power rankings (which will eventually morph into bracketology). Enjoy!

After a Saturday for the ages came and went this past weekend, it's clear offensive efficiency is ruling the college basketball world. Villanova, UCLA, Creighton, Indiana, UNC, Kentucky, and a slew of other teams are shooting the lights out early in the season. In a rare switch, offensive efficiency is proving more valuable than defensive efficiency early on this year. We aren't used to seeing shooting quite like this, but it makes for great basketball watching. We also have some surprise teams making big moves in the rankings, and I'm sure the shake-ups will keep coming week-by-week with no slowing down.

POWER RANKINGS

1. Villanova (8-0) - The defending champs spent a nice week destroying fellow Big 5 teams. On top of that, the Wildcats watched Kentucky fall (more on that later), which moves them up to the top spot. I can make a great case for the two teams behind them to be ahead, but I'll reward a defending champion going undefeated every day of the week.

2. Baylor (8-0) - SURPRISE! The Bears just keep on winning against really good competition. Scott Drew's club has now beaten four top 25 teams in Oregon, Michigan State, Louisville and, most recently, Xavier. (I understand it's likely two of those teams won't be ranked this week, but they're still really good.)  This is the most impressive early season resume in a long time.

3. UCLA (9-0) - It's one thing to put up massive offensive numbers against lowly competition. It's a completely different thing when you go into Rupp Arena and put up 97 points against Kentucky. Lonzo Ball had a rough go in the first half but he was helped by fellow freshman T.J. Leaf, who is absolutely balling.

4. Kentucky (7-1) - I'm keeping the Wildcats right here because I still saw a lot I liked in the loss to UCLA. Mainly, I think De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk make up the best backcourt in the country. This team still has so much room to grow.

5. Kansas (7-1) - Shockingly, Kansas has decided to go with a small, four-guard lineup as of late.  The Jayhawks have benched Landen Lucas and it's working having Lagerald Vick join Graham, Mason and Jackson in the backcourt. I applaud Bill Self for the outside-the-box thinking.

6. Duke (8-1) - Great to finally see the Blue Devils get some of their freshman back, albeit against Maine. The Dukies will probably shoot further up the power rankings next week as they get their fresh legs under them. As of now, I'm still slightly underwhelmed by the overall product (which is being harsh), but I love what I'm seeing from Luke Kennard who -- shhhhhhh -- is a better overall player than Grayson Allen.

7. Gonzaga (8-0) - They haven't missed a beat, putting away frisky Arizona on Saturday.  The Dogs are now on cruise control and have a real shot at being the last undefeated team standing this season.

8. Creighton (8-0) - Speaking of undefeated, the Bluejays of Omaha are maybe the hottest offensive team in the country, led by three of the best guards in all of college basketball.  (They may even be better than Kentucky's backcourt.)  Creighton will be a force in the Big East this year.

9. Indiana (7-1) - The hardest thing about doing rankings is Jekyll-and-Hyde teams like the Hoosiers. What can you say about a team that beat Kansas, lost to Fort Wayne, and then rebounded with a win over North Carolina? You rank them 9. That's what you do.

10. North Carolina (7-1) - Speaking of North Carolina, last week I thought the Tar Heels were the hottest team in college hoops and now they're licking their wounds after being beaten pretty good by Indiana. They're still extremely well-rounded, and should still be in the Top 5 conversation later in the year.

11. Virginia (7-1) - For the first time in years, the Cavaliers lost a home non-conference game. The slugfest with West Virginia went as expected as the two unique defenses went at each other.  Hard to drop UVA too far, as they still boast the nation's second-best defense.

12. Butler (8-0) - Hard to believe we're into December and still have three undefeated Big East teams and none of them are Xavier. Butler has looked really balanced this year in wins over Arizona and Utah. I would still like to see more scoring from the guards.

13. Louisville (7-1) - The Cardinals successfully rebounded from a not-bad-at-all loss to Baylor and took down Purdue in a game they tried very hard to lose. Louisville's biggest issue is offensive consistency, which has grinded to a halt at times this season. Defensively, however, there are no issues.

14. Xavier (7-1) - Hey, look, it's another team that lost to Baylor.  The loss isn't necessarily bad, but the way X is playing hasn't been totally solid.  They're getting almost all of their offense from three players, and their depth hasn't been great. They will still be a really good team, but are starting to look less like a dark horse Final Four team.

15. West Virginia (6-1) - What a win for WVU in Charlottesville. Huggy Bear's press continues to give opponents problems and keeps the Mountaineers in games even when they aren't hitting their shots.  They were 25th in the AP poll last week, but are now No. 9 in kenpom.  Expect a move once the pollsters read this column.

LOCAL FLAVOR 

Providence - What a week for the Friars.  They took out previously ranked in-state rivals Rhode Island and are now 6-2 with a quality win.  Rodney Bullock is carrying the scoring load, and I have to say I'm very surprised by the development of Kyron Cartwright. His ball-handling and passing have been phenomenal. Ed Cooley is doing wonders with this group..

Rhode Island - Speaking of the Rams, they'll be just fine. A true road loss (albeit still in-state) is nothing to worry about. Now they'll hope Providence becomes a Top 50, or at the very least Top 100, RPI team, and the loss won't even look bad. What Rhody does need to worry about is finding a way to beat good teams. They now have three losses -- to Duke, Valpo (road), and Providence (road). They do have a quality win over a very good Cincinnati team, so they'll just need to take care of conference play and find a way to get a little more from their bench.

WHAT TO WATCH THIS WEEK

  • Tuesday December 6: Florida vs Duke (at Madison Square Garden)
  • Saturday December 10: Villanova vs Notre Dame (Prudential Center); Michigan at UCLA

POTENTIAL FUTURE CELTICS TO WATCH

Jayson Tatum - Duke finally has a couple of its freshman back, and this is the guy to watch. I was pumped about him prior to the season because he's a 6-foot-7 wing player who does everything effortlessly. Tatum had 10 points and 8 rebounds in his opener despite being very rusty. It's only up from here.

De'Aaron Fox - Kentucky's point guard is the real deal and is so fun to watch.  He's a 6-6 bean stalk, so he doesn't necessarily look like a point guard . . . until you see him pass.  Fox can also get to the rim and play suffocating 'D'.  He's still working on his jump shot, but it's coming along.  NBA teams will drool over this guy.

Follow me on Twitter @RobbieBuckets for college hoops musings and off-the-cuff sports takes.

Monday, Dec. 5: Craig Cunningham's recovery

Monday, Dec. 5: Craig Cunningham's recovery

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while fully getting in the holiday spirit by getting the family Christmas tree this week.

*Very good and very sobering story about Craig Cunningham’s slow recovery, and his large support system with the AHL Roadrunners team he is captaining this season. It sounds like it might be a bit of a long road for him, so he and his family will need that support from those around him.

*Tyler Seguin has his shot back, and that’s great news for the Dallas Stars power play. So is that like Stella getting her groove back?

*A KHL player went into a sliding dab formation in order to celebrate a goal on the ice, and we salute him for that.

*The Maple Leafs are trying to fortify their backup goaltending situation after waiving Jhonas Enroth this week.

*Interesting Bob McKenzie piece about a young man that’s hoping to challenge conventional thinking in the hockey coaching ranks.

*TSN’s Scott Cullen takes a look at Winnipeg rookie Patrik Laine’s shooting skills as part of his “Statistically Speaking” column.

*For something completely different: the hits just keep on coming for Netflix as they’re going to double their TV series output over the next year.