Everything about Monday night looked so familiar: a bearded Werth in a backward cap, ski goggles strapped to his forehead, bending down to greet his family on the infield grass. Yet it all felt so strange. The Nationals, perennial doormats of the National League, had snapped the Phillies' run of supremacy, bringing Washington its first postseason berth since the Senators won the American League pennant in 1933.
The Senators left town in 1971 and baseball did not return until 2005, and the Nationals have spent much of the past decade trying to overcome those 34 years of emotional atrophy.
Playoff fever took a while to settle in on Monday, when the Phillies arrived for the final series of the regular season.
Cliff Lee once famously said Philadelphia fans do not need a teleprompter to know when to cheer. Well, neither do Nationals fans. They need a Hype Guy, which is really just another name for a male cheerleader who bounces up and down from section to section like a tailless, jersey-wearing Tigger, screaming and whistling and annoying the bejesus out of anybody who might actually be attempting to monitor pitch locations and secondary leads and other less, well, "hype" aspects of the game.
Nationals Park is not a place of nuance. It is all concrete and aluminum and national advertisements; game day is a succession of desperate gimmicks broken up by nine innings of baseball. During the early stages of Monday night's game, it was not immediately clear which was greater: the dramatic tension that surrounded the Nationals' unresolved quest to clinch the NL East, or that which surrounded a foam Teddy Roosevelt's quest to clinch his first-ever victory in a race against other presidential mascot/caricatures. See, the mascot race, while cliche from its inception, has nevertheless evolved to occupy a central role in the Nationals Park game-day experience, with poor Teddy doing his best Bull Moose Party impression and falling flat on his face during each competition.
On Monday, the video board above the seats in right-centerfield played a couple of skits in which the giant foam Teddy received inspirational counseling from Sen. John McCain and professional wrestler John Cena. Teddy, you see, will win that race at some point during this homestand, and then we can all go back to making fun of a giant foam Gerald Ford.
But by the ninth inning, Nationals Park was rocking because of baseball, the fans in the lower bowl spending much of the final three innings on their feet, the scoreboard flashing updates from Pittsburgh, where a Braves loss would clinch the division for Washington regardless of how it fared against the Phillies.
At 9:45 p.m., the Braves game went final, and the 2-1 loss flashed on the scoreboard, and the Nationals dugout erupted, and so did the stands, and as Michael Morse was introduced to lead off the bottom of the ninth, the words "NL East Division Champs" blinked all over the ballpark. Morse could not suppress a series of giddy grins as he took his warmup swings in the on-deck circle, the Nationals' soon-to-be 2-0 loss relegated to irrelevance.
And in the thick of it all, there were the Phillies, congratulating one another after a win that ensured they would not finish the season with their first losing record since 2002.
Without a doubt, it is different here. The excitement is more manufactured, the emotion less raw than it is in the historic sporting hotbeds of the Northeast, where the meaning of the mission has been passed down for generations.
But everything began somewhere, and Monday night might have been the beginning of the Nationals as an NL East power. For Werth and his fledgling fan base, the champagne tastes just as sweet.
"I'm going to go out and enjoy this," the bearded outfielder said.
And with that, he glided out of the clubhouse, bounded down the concrete steps, and disappeared into the fray.
Contact David Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @HighCheese. For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read his blog at www.philly.com/HighCheese.