Just because they've finally clinched the NL East doesn't mean the Washington Nationals are out of things to play for.
If Gio Gonzalez earns his 22nd win Tuesday night against the Philadelphia Phillies , it would get the newly crowned division champions closer to claiming the NL's best record and ensuring their Cy Young Award candidate starts their playoff opener.
Minutes before the end of Washington's 2-0 loss in this series opener Monday, the result of a different game set off a celebration in the home team's dugout and throughout Nationals Park. Second-place Atlanta losing to Pittsburgh gave the Nationals franchise its first division championship since the Montreal Expos won the East in 1981.
"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."
Winning the division seemed to be a foregone conclusion for a Washington team which has led the East since May 22, but some doubt had recently crept in. The Nationals (96-64) are 7-10 since Sept. 13 while the Braves have gone 12-4.
"We put ourselves in that position to have the luxury of having the other team have to play perfect baseball," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We played a great 159, 160 games to get to that point, and we should be commended for that."
Now their attention turns to edging Cincinnati for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Those teams have identical records, but the Nationals own the tiebreaker for winning the season series.
A victory Tuesday along with a Reds loss in St. Louis would wrap up the NL's top seed for Washington, and its division series would begin Sunday. Gonzalez (21-8, 2.89 ERA) would certainly start that Game 1, but if the Nationals finish below Cincinnati, they will open against San Francisco on Saturday and Gonzalez will have had only three days' rest.
With the division race over, manager Davey Johnson might limit Gonzalez's pitch count even though this is the left-hander's last chance to impress Cy Young voters. He leads the majors in wins and opponent batting average (.206) while ranking sixth in the NL in ERA and fourth in strikeouts (207).
Gonzalez has already set the franchise record for victories and now looks to become the first NL pitcher to win 22 games since Brandon Webb with Arizona in 2008. He hasn't surrendered more than three runs in 10 consecutive outings, going 8-2 with a 2.00 ERA.
He gave up three runs in the first inning at Philadelphia on Thursday but held the Phillies scoreless over the next five in a 7-3 victory.
"It's the kind of year he has had," Johnson told the team's official website. "He has been very consistent."
Gonzalez had never faced the Phillies until this season, going 3-1 with a 2.52 ERA.
Darin Ruf had a three-run double off Gonzalez last week and had a two-run triple Monday. Ruf, who led all minor leaguers with 38 homers this season, is hitting .333 in 10 games since being called up.
Jimmy Rollins is 3 for 7 off Gonzalez but might not play after sitting out Monday with a calf injury.
The Phillies (81-79), who won the last five East titles, need one more win to finish above .500 for the 10th straight year.
"I've been mad for three or four weeks; hadn't really been coming out," manager Charlie Manuel said. "We've got to regroup and we've got to play much better."
Manuel now gives rookie reliever B.J. Rosenberg (1-2, 6.86) his first major league start. The right-hander last pitched Wednesday with three hitless innings in an 8-4 loss to Washington.
Rosenberg struck out Bryce Harper in that game, but the 19-year-old sensation has hit .467 over his last eight.
|September 29, 2012||Ryan Howard||Day-to-Day||Broken toe|
|September 05, 2012||Placido Polanco||15-Day DL||Lower back inflammation|
|August 31, 2012||Raul Valdes||15-Day DL||Torn meniscus in right knee|
|August 29, 2012||Cole Hamels||Day-to-Day||Gastrointestinal illness|
|August 29, 2012||Vance Worley||15-Day DL||Loose bodies in right elbow|
|August 28, 2012||Domonic Brown||Day-to-Day||Left game - left knee soreness|
|September 12, 2012||Michael Morse||Day-to-Day||Torn cuff and bone bruise in left wrist|
|September 03, 2012||Michael Morse||Day-to-Day||Left game - sore right thumb|
|September 02, 2012||Jayson Werth||Day-to-Day||Sore hamstring|
|August 24, 2012||Ian Desmond||Day-to-Day||Strained right hamstring|
|August 24, 2012||Michael Morse||Day-to-Day||Left game - right hand contusion|
|August 13, 2012||Jayson Werth||Day-to-Day||Sore right ankle|
WASHINGTON (AP) -- A smile crept across Adam LaRoche 's face when he rounded the bases after his career-best 33rd homer gave him an even 100 RBIs.
After a high-five from manager Davey Johnson and a hug from Jayson Werth , LaRoche acknowledged the crowd's ovation with a tip of his red batting helmet during Washington's 4-2 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday night, 24 hours after the Nationals clinched the NL East title.
"Feels good," LaRoche said, "to have a little celebration two nights in a row."
This one was more muted, of course, than all the alcohol-spraying and mirth-making of Monday. Asked how he'll mark his individual achievement, LaRoche replied: "I don't know. I'm still recovering from last night. I'll have to take it easy tonight."
As he spoke, the televisions in the Nationals Park home clubhouse were tuned to the game between the Yankees and Red Sox - not Cincinnati's 3-1 victory over the Cardinals, which was relevant to Washington's postseason plans. The Nationals and Reds are tied for the best record in the majors (97-64) heading into Wednesday's regular-season finales, with the top seed in the NL playoffs on the line, something the Nationals insist they aren't all that worried about.
Washington can clinch home-field advantage throughout the postseason with a victory in Game 162 or a loss by the Reds.
"I don't know how it's that important," Johnson said. "You've got to beat the teams you play."
On an evening when a thick fog was hanging over the stadium, Johnson decided most of his main guys deserved a rest. Indeed, LaRoche was Washington's only everyday player who stayed in for more than five innings - and he led off the sixth by driving the second pitch thrown by reliever Josh Lindblom (3-5) into the home bullpen in right field. Several Nationals relievers raised their fists as the ball cleared the wall.
Last season was rough as could be for LaRoche. Trying to play despite a torn labrum in his left shoulder, he hit .172 with three homers in 43 games, then finally agreed to have surgery.
What a turnaround: In 2012, LaRoche tied his career-best RBI total and joined Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn - who each did it twice - as the only Nationals players to reach 100 in that category. He heard some "MVP!" chants from fans in the seventh inning.
"It's unfortunate he got hurt last year, for really the first time in his career. But he's a terrific player and a terrific teammate, and I'm so happy for him," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "Now we're looking for him to get hot and carry us like he did quite often in the first half."
Zach Duke (1-0) threw a scoreless sixth to get his first major league win since Aug. 14, 2011, for Arizona. Drew Storen earned his fourth save in five chances.
Phillies rookie Darin Ruf hit a pair of solo homers - off Tom Gorzelanny in the fourth inning, and Tyler Clippard in the eighth. All three of Ruf's homers in the majors have come against Washington.
Ruf led all minor leaguers with 38 home runs this year, earning the nickname "Babe."
"I was just trying to put myself in a spot where I can compete next year in spring training for, if not for a starting job, just a spot on the team," said Ruf, who has driven in all seven of Philadelphia's runs over its past three games against Washington.
Johnson used Gorzelanny to begin the game instead of originally scheduled starter Gio Gonzalez , preferring to let the left-hander who is 21-8 with a 2.89 ERA stay fresh for a start in Game 1 of the division series.
LaRoche and center fielder Bryce Harper were the only regulars in Johnson's starting lineup. He opted to sit third baseman Zimmerman, right fielder Werth, left fielder Michael Morse , shortstop Ian Desmond , second baseman Danny Espinosa and catcher Kurt Suzuki .
Instead, the lineup included players such as Mark DeRosa , making his first start at shortstop since 2006 for Texas.
"How about that Goon Squad?" a grinning Johnson said, referring to the nickname Washington's bench players have been given. "Told you they were tough."
NOTES: DeRosa was charged with a fielding error in the third. ... Harper, the NL rookie of the month for September, went 1 for 3 with a single and a stolen base, his 18th, in the fifth inning. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel came out to argue that Harper advanced on a ball fouled off by the batter. ... The third-place Phillies are 81-80. ... Johnson said RHP Jordan Zimmermann will start Game 2 in the playoffs. RHP Edwin Jackson (9-11), pitching the regular-season finale against Philadelphia on Wednesday, or LHP Ross Detwiler (10-8) will take Game 3, depending on the opponent. ... LHP Cliff Lee (6-8) starts for the Phillies on Wednesday. ... LaRoche hit 32 homers for Atlanta in 2006, and drove in 100 runs for Arizona in 2010.