The Philadelphia Phillies are witnessing an end to the most dominant era in their history. Phillies fans like myself certainly know that this team never won five straight division titles before these last several years. But in 2012, a new NL East champion will be crowned - and thanks to one last bitter twist, Philadelphia will actually have to watch it happen.
The Phillies are visiting the Washington Nationals in the final three games of the season, as they need two wins to clinch a winning record. But they really need three wins - as well as three victories from the Atlanta Braves - in order to avoid seeing the Nationals seize their NL East throne right in front of them.
Washington could have clinched the division already on Sept. 30, but it lost to the St. Louis Cardinals while Atlanta beat the New York Mets. But the Nationals may be glad it turned out that way, since they are going back home and have a chance to clinch their first NL East crown in front of their starving fans. And by another twist of fate, they only need to beat the former champions once to do it.
The Nationals took aim at overthrowing the Phillies right from the start, with decided success. With a three-game lead over the Braves with three games to play, a clinching win over those Phillies on Oct. 1 would be the most glorious night in Washington baseball history. Of course, for Philadelphia, it would only make the loss of its NL East throne even harder to swallow.
The Phillies knew this day was coming for weeks and months, as they abandoned their quest to 'six-peat' long ago. But having the Nationals clinch this way is just one final insult, although there is little way around it now. The only way to avoid it is to beat Washington three straight times, then hope Atlanta sweeps its own final series to force a one-game divisional playoff.
Maybe the Phillies will catch a semi-break and the Braves will lose before the Nationals can celebrate. It might take a little less out of it if Washington doesn't get to jump around and celebrate in front of their fans, after clinching directly with a win over Philadelphia. But no matter how the Nationals finally take power in the NL East, the Phillies have no choice but to witness it in some way.
If Washington had been able to clinch earlier, like it really should have, it wouldn't have to come to this. The fact it is taking this long may prove that the Nationals are slipping without Stephen Strasburg after all, and could face a rude awakening in the playoffs.
Yet before that final judgment comes, the Nationals will get to be vindicated by winning the NL East at home, against their arch-rivals and former overlords. It is now just a question of whether it happens on Oct. 1, 2 or 3 - and how much Philadelphia will have it rubbed in its face.
Robert Dougherty is a life-long Philadelphia resident who has followed the Phillies since he was eight years old.
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