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."

Haggerty: Good, but not good enough, again the story for Bruins

Haggerty: Good, but not good enough, again the story for Bruins

BOSTON – The all-important results continue to elude the Bruins at the time when they need them most.

The Black and Gold lost their third game in a row, 1-0, to the Chicago Blackhawks at TD Garden Friday night when they allowed the game-winning goal with less than 90 seconds remaining in regulation. It was a simple defensive breakdown and some great tic-tac-toe passing with Marian Hossa finishing things off, but it also felt like a game where the Blackhawks coasted against a wounded Bruins team for 58 minutes before turning it on when it was winning time.

The winning goal was a cross-ice pass from Tanner Kero to Hossa, with the puck sliding right between the legs of Adam McQuaid in the slot, and Hossa picking a corner while giving Tuukka Rask zero time to react side to side.

“We had a game plan in place and our guys executed well, they were ready to play,” said Claude Julien. “One little mistake and it’s in our net, and you lose yourself a pretty important hockey game.”

So, now the Bruins have taken only one point in their past three games, have dropped behind the Ottawa Senators in the Atlantic Division standings and continue to skate around like they’re wearing the weight of the entire organization on their shoulders.

“At the end of the night it is another loss and that’s the biggest thing. Did your team play fairly well? I think so. I think we competed hard, but then again you’re dealing with some growing pains. We had an icing late in the game so that’s not necessary, but the winning goal that goes through three of our guys and in our net with a minute-and- a-half left,” said Julien. “We have to stand there again, and take the responsibility for our own actions. It’s unfortunate because that minute-and-a-half that was left in the game kind of tarnished everything we had done for the first 58 minutes.

“I thought we played pretty well against a good team. We had contained the guys that we needed to contain. We didn’t score any goals – I don’t think we did a good enough job there - we had some chances but again you got to find ways to score goals. That’s where we are at.”

Clearly, the Bruins didn’t give up a ton defensively and Rask had been solid for the first two-plus periods, but there was also a sense Chicago didn’t bring its best game either when Boston outshot the Blackhawks 17-6 in the opening period. It was also clear that, aside from a couple of good, early chances from Tim Schaller and Brad Marchand, along with a Joe Morrow breakaway chance, the Bruins offense wasn’t doing enough work to get closer to the Chicago net for any sustained pressure.

So, instead of a solid result with dark clouds swirling over Causeway Street that a big change is needed to jolt a stagnant team, the Bruins hang up another loss where they outshot their opponent and end up with nothing to show for it.

These are the kinds of losses that test morale and togetherness and could either be taken as a sign of things tightening up for the Bruins or of things continuing to spiral away from a team that just needs wins at this point.

“I’m sure everybody’s feeling down right now because we lost, but you can’t start pouting too much. You’ve got to move on,” said Rask, who allowed one goal on 22 shots in the loss. “[There’s a] big game coming up Sunday, and next week, so it’s a loss and we have to move on. [We have to] get ready for the next one. I’m sure guys are pissed today, but tomorrow’s a new day.”

Tomorrow is a new day for everybody on the Black and Gold including Julien, who is scheduled to still run practice on Saturday as the B’s bench boss before speaking to the media prior to the team leaving for Pittsburgh. So, it’s business as usual after another loss on Friday night in a classic Original Six matchup that’s clearly most of the luster from where it was at four years ago, but one can only sit and wonder how much longer business as usual cuts it for a hockey club that continues to flounder. 
 

Julien sidesteps job security question with "shock journalism" comment

Julien sidesteps job security question with "shock journalism" comment

BOSTON -- With three crushing losses in a row at a time when results are really all that matters, the Boston Bruins are reeling at the wrong time during the regular season. The B’s tried their best to win a game 0-0 with strong defense against a sleepy Chicago Blackhawks bunch on Friday night, but ultimately coughed up a Marian Hossa goal in the final minutes for a 1-0 regulation loss at TD Garden.

The defeat continued a swirl downward for the Black and Gold over the last week, and was a second straight shutout loss on home ice for the first time in almost 15 years. The losing stretch has also kicked up the chatter that Claude Julien is in trouble as head coach of the Bruins, and the hockey club’s underperformance up and down the lineup is ultimately going to cost the NHL’s longest tenured bench boss his job.

The Ottawa Senators have passed the Bruins in the Atlantic Division, and it’s only a matter of time before the Toronto Maple Leafs move by them as well with both Toronto and Ottawa holding six games in hand on Boston. Combine all of this with the B’s having missed the playoffs in each of the previous two seasons leading into this one, and it shouldn’t be at all surprising that Julien is squarely on the coaching hot seat.

The B’s bench boss was asked about his job security after the Chicago loss, and clearly didn’t appreciate the tough, but appropriate question.

“Well, I’m not into shock-journalism,” said Julien in a prideful tone. “So I’ll stay away from that question if you don’t mind.”

The Bruins posted their Saturday schedule shortly after Julien and the B’s players had addressed the media following the loss, and sure enough the embattled coach is scheduled to address the media post-practice as part of the regular practice day routine. So it doesn’t seem that a move with Julien is imminent this weekend despite another loss, but both the coach and the players know something is going to happen to shake things up with this team if they continue to struggle.

“Right now it’s a results based situation, so if you’re going to keep losing games then probably something’s going to happen,” said Torey Krug. “But right now we’re just pretty down emotionally after this game, so I don’t want to look at the big picture. I just [want to] focus on what’s going on in this room, and hopefully we can come back with a good effort the next game.”

A good effort might help Julien’s standing with the Bruins in the short term, but it’s impossible to imagine the B’s bench boss making it through the rest of the Bruins regular season given all of things working against him right now.