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The playoffs are the payoff for the Nationals

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The playoffs are the payoff for the Nationals

Fireworks shot off from the roof at Nationals Park at 10:02 p.m. Thursday evening. Within seconds, players were handed commemorative T-shirts and caps. A crowd of 30,359 roared with approval as everyone in uniform retreated down the dugout steps and into the home clubhouse.

There they were greeted and congratulated by 86-year-old Ted Lerner -- perhaps the only one in the building who was around the last time something like this occurred in this town -- and other members of ownership, and collectively they raised flutes of champagne and toasted their success after a 4-1 victory over the Dodgers clinched Washington's first playoff berth since 1933.

Someone asked Davey Johnson to say a few words, so the 69-year-old manager did. He conveyed, as he always does, exactly how he felt.

"What's this?" Johnson grumbled. "We ain't done yet."

No, the Nationals believe there are still more hurdles to cross in 2012, first and foremost winning the NL East division -- the magic number for that now stands at 8 -- then making a deep run through the postseason.

So there wasn't all that much celebration taking place on this night among those in uniform, even if technically they had accomplished something quite significant.

"This pretty much means that if we lose every game from here on out, we get to play one more game," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "We're looking way bigger picture than that."

Nationals players and coaches may not have put much stock in win No. 91 out of 149, but they didn't stop fans and some team officials from rejoicing in a moment they had never experienced before.

"I don't want to downplay it, because it's a huge accomplishment for the organization," said Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals' first draft pick after arriving in town in 2005. "But I think the next one is the one where we'll do a little more celebrating."

That next one, should it occur, will most likely take place in another city, in another team's ballpark. Mathematically, the Nationals cannot clinch the division before the current homestand ends Monday. There's a much greater chance they will do it next week in either Philadelphia (they'd need to lead the Braves by at least seven games with six to play) or St. Louis (they'd need to lead by at least four games with three to play).

By the time the Nationals return home for the final regular-season series of the year against the Phillies, they certainly hope they've already wrapped things up and are making plans for the upcoming NL Division Series.

So this was an opportunity for Washington's fans to rejoice and salute their hometown ballclub in the flesh, and a chance to reflect on all the bad baseball they had watched over the years. Or all the years when there was no baseball at all to watch.

"They stuck with us the whole time, too," Zimmerman said. "I've met fans and seen people here for years when we would lose 100 games a year. For them to have a team, and for this city to have a baseball team to root for, is pretty special."

After narrowly missing an opportunity to clinch late Wednesday night after a dramatic rally from six runs down, Thursday's actual clinching victory was fairly matter-of-fact.

Ross Detwiler tossed six innings of one-run ball. The Nationals scored four early runs off Chris Capuano, with Zimmerman and Danny Espinosa delivering RBI doubles. And then the bullpen shut the door on any possibility of a Los Angeles comeback, with Christian Garcia, Ryan Mattheus and Drew Storen each tossing a scoreless inning to preserve the lead.

It wasn't until Storen got two strikes on Hanley Ramirez, the final batter of the game, that everyone seemed to begin to sense what was at stake. And when Storen blew a slider past Ramirez for his third consecutive strikeout in a perfect inning of relief, he realized what had just happened.

"I didn't even think about it until I saw it on the scoreboard afterwards," he said. "I was too concerned with the three guys coming up. I was just having fun. The crowd was real into it. If you're not out there having fun in that situation, then you shouldn't be out there."

The Nationals, though, were careful not to have too much fun. If not for the fireworks and the T-shirts and the scoreboard declaring "Nats Clinch," it was difficult to distinguish this win from any of the previous 90.

"I think there was some talk about not celebrating at all," said Jayson Werth, who was a part of plenty of clinchers in Philadelphia. "And I kind of talked them out of that. So that was good. Any time you get to the postseason, it's a huge accomplishment.

"There's a lot of teams that won't be playing in the postseason, and we should relish this moment. The organization and the town of Washington, D.C. should be proud."

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Cubs drop protest, but not stance about Sean Doolittle's delivery

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Cubs drop protest, but not stance about Sean Doolittle's delivery

WASHINGTON -- Sunday afternoon’s discussions still revolved around Saturday night’s close, which Washington manager Davey Martinez referred to as a “fiasco” on Sunday.

Chicago manager Joe Maddon started a chaotic situation when he popped out of the dugout following Sean Doolittle’s first pitch in the ninth inning Saturday. Maddon contended Doolittle’s “toe-tap” was an illegal delivery, akin to when Chicago reliever Carl Edwards Jr. tried to add a pause in spring training, but was told the move was illegal.

The umpires told him, and Doolittle, the delivery was legal. Chicago filed a protest with the league. After consulting with Major League Baseball and MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer, Joe Torre, the Cubs dropped their protest Sunday morning.

A point of differentiation is whether the pitcher is taking a second step. Umpires previously determined Edwards was taking a second step. They determined Doolittle was not. This is a judgment call for the umpires and is not reviewable.

Official Baseball Rule 5.07(a) states in part: “The pitcher may not take a second step toward home plate with either foot or otherwise reset his pivot foot in his delivery of the pitch. If there is a runner, or runners, on base it is a balk under Rule 6.02(a); if the bases are unoccupied it is an illegal pitch under Rule 6.02(b).”

The league, according to Maddon, said there is a difference between Edwards placing his full foot on the ground and Doolittle grazing the mound with a cleat when he delivered. Maddon continued to not agree with the interpretation.

“We went through the whole process,” Maddon said. “Our guys in the office spoke to MLB and I talked to Mr. Torre. The whole thing I wanted to really get done was protect Carl. I really didn’t anticipate a whole lot to be done with it. Even though I still don’t agree with the conclusion, because I think it’s exactly what Carl did, only a different version of it. But the point was, I would not be a good parent if I had not spoken up for my guy. And that’s what I was doing last night and, again, it’s just to eliminate any gray area there just for future because it’s going to happen again down the road somewhere and you’re just trying to delineate what is right and what is wrong. In my mind, it wasn’t a judgment call, I thought it was black-and-white. It wasn’t gray.”

Maddon said multiple times that Doolittle tapped with his toe in addition to grazing the mound, both of which, he contended, were not legal or different than Edwards' attempt at deception.

The congenial Doolittle was steamed postgame Saturday and remained irritated Sunday. Saturday, he took multiple shots at Maddon during his postgame commentary. He also taunted the idea when throwing warmup pitches while Maddon argued with umpires by making exaggerated kicks with his leg and multiple stops with his foot. Doolittle switched to a delivery without any stops -- one he often uses -- after the protest as a way to show Maddon he didn’t need the tweak to be successful.

“In that moment, he's not trying to do anything other than rattle me and it was kind of tired,” Doolittle said Saturday. “I don't know. Sometimes he has to remind people how smart he is and how much he pays attention to the game and stuff like that. He put his stamp on it for sure.

"I actually have to thank him. After they came out the second, the [Kyle] Schwarber at-bat, I threw two fastballs and a slider and a fastball to [Kris] Bryant and those were probably the best ones I've thrown in a while. I don't do the tap when there's somebody on base so I can keep my pickoff move available if I need it. I've had a lot of traffic recently, so I've had practice doing it, so it wasn't like a huge adjustment to me. I don't know. In a way, I kind of need to thank him."

Asked Sunday if Doolittle’s comments were relayed to him, Maddon smiled and said yes.

“Listen, I have no issue with that whatsoever,” Maddon said. “We’re all emotional. I’ve said a lot of things I didn’t want to say years ago -- even in this ballpark. I think if he understood the entire context, he might have had a different opinion. Even if he was the manager himself -- if he was me -- or if he was being protected by his manager under similar circumstances, I think his stance may be different.”

No one -- the league, Maddon or Doolittle -- changed their perspective a day later.

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Joe Maddon's protest prompts Sean Doolittle to call his act 'tired'

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Joe Maddon's protest prompts Sean Doolittle to call his act 'tired'

WASHINGTON -- Sean Doolittle stood at his locker in the clubhouse still roiled by what occurred in the ninth inning Saturday. 

His clean inning for his eighth save was not on his mind. Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon was.

The Cubs appeared to enact a pre-planned grouse when they say Doolittle next. Chicago quality assurance coach Chris Denorfia was talking to the umpires as Doolittle warmed up in the 5-2 game. Following Doolittle's first pitch, Maddon popped out of the dugout to begin his banter, and eventual protest, of Doolittle's delivery.

At question was Doolittle's toe tap. With no runners on base, he raises his front leg, drops and holds it for a count, then grazes the dirt with is cleat before he fully comes to the plate. Doolittle started this almost a year ago during a late May series in Miami. No one had complained since -- until Maddon emerged from the Cubs' dugout.

If the umpires deem the move illegal, the outcome is a ball called with the bases empty or a balk called with runners on base. Saturday, home plate umpire Sam Holbrook told Doolittle he was doing nothing wrong. Which turned the postgame discussion around the event to Maddon's intentions. 

A starting point would be one of Maddon's relievers, Carl Edwards Jr., tried to add a similar move in spring training. But Edwards was putting his full foot on the ground and was told the move was illegal. 
Doolittle was more inclined to believe Maddon's primary motivation was to rattle him at the start of the save opportunity, and he calmly, but clearly, took digs at Maddon for the process. 

"After the first time Joe came out, the home plate umpire was like you're fine, just keep it moving," Doolittle said. "Don't start, stop and start again. Just keep it moving. I was like, that's what I do all the time anyway, so...in that moment, he's not trying to do anything other than rattle me and it was kind of tired. I don't know. Sometimes he has to remind people how smart he is and how much he pays attention to the game and stuff like that. He put his stamp on it for sure. 

"I actually have to thank him. After they came out the second, the [Kyle] Schwarber at-bat, I threw two fastballs and a slider and a fastball to [Kris] Bryant and those were probably the best ones I've thrown in a while. I don't do the tap when there's somebody on base so I can keep my pickoff move available if I need it. I've had a lot of traffic recently, so I've had practice doing it, so it wasn't like a huge adjustment to me. I don't know. In a way, I kind of need to thank him."
Doolittle wasn't finished. He was later asked if he thought Maddon was trying to get him to change his mechanics.

"Well, yeah, that's part of the mind game that he was trying to play and I get that," Doolittle said. "I guess I should take it as a compliment that he felt like he had to do that in order to try to throw me off my game in that situation. They're trying to get you to over-think it and change something in the middle of a save opportunity to give them a chance where you start making mistakes or are over-thinking it. 

"But once the home plate umpire tells me, he said, you're fine, just keep it moving, it's just a tap, at this point, I've been doing it for over a year. We're a month-and-a-half into the season, so I know their guy had to make an adjustment; I thought it was a thinly veiled attempt to kind of throw me off."

Members of the Nationals staff were also irked. Among their concerns was the chance for Doolittle to injure himself if he suddenly changed his delivery.
Maddon was adamant the situation was created by Edwards not being allowed to alter his delivery.

“It’s really simple," Maddon said. "That’s exactly what Carl (Edwards) was told he can’t do. And I was told it was an illegal pitch and he can’t do it. I went to Sam (Holbrook), and I told him that. And he said, ‘in our judgment.’ I said, ‘there’s no judgment. If he taps the ground, it’s an illegal pitch, period.’ There’s nothing to judge. You can judge whether he did or not. It’s obvious that he did. If you can’t tell that, then there’s something absolutely wrong. So that was my argument.

"I said if you guys don’t clean it up, I’m going to protest the game.  So we protested the game. For me, I don’t know how many he actually did make that were illegal pitches. I don’t know how they’re going to rule with this. It’s their rule. It’s not mine. I didn’t ask for it in the first place. They took it away from Carl. They took it away from (Cory) Gearrin. They’ve taken it away from a couple guys and they seem to be somewhat aware, but not aware of what had happened."

Wherever the truth resides, Saturday night became another installment in the oddities when Chicago and Washington play. The Cubs walked Bryce Harper 13 times in 19 plate appearances in 2016. The 2017 five-game National League Division Series which ended in Nationals Park included Stephen Strasburg's mystery illness and PR gaffe about who would pitch Game 4 in Chicago. Add Saturday night to the strangeness and buckle up for Sunday's series finale.

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