WASHINGTON -- Holding a sizable lead in the National League East for much of September, the Nationals thought they would have clinched the division by now. But as the Nats open the final series of the regular season with the NL's top seed up for grabs, general manager Mike Rizzo is pleased with precisely where his team finds itself.
Entering the three-game series against the Phillies, the Nats' magic number was one. Winning any of the next three games or any loss by the Braves during that span clinches the team's first division title since returning to Washington, though this isn't the first chance. The Nats dropped two of three to the Cardinals this past weekend after splitting a series with the Brewers earlier in the week.
All of this makes the Nationals' three-game sweep at the hands of the Braves in Atlanta from Sept. 14-16 stand out even more, though the Nats have welcomed the opportunity to experience playoff-like baseball in the regular season.
"It's definitely helped us. I think it's made us tougher. I think it's made us more appreciative and prepared," Rizzo said. "Playing these tough teams down the stretch has been great, and I think it will be an asset when it's all said and done."
Although manager Davey Johnson has lamented the new playoff format, since the top seed in each league won't know its first-round opponent until after the Wild Card game, Rizzo denied the possibility of such a situation being an issue.
He did, however, add that his top priority remains winning the division.
"It matters to me, because I want to win the most games and have the best record. It's just my personality," he said. "But as far as strategic [reasons], there's nothing we can do. We're just going to play to win every time out."
Without definitively knowing their first-round opponent, Rizzo said, the Nats have been forced to extend manpower behind advance scouting. But with other clubs in similar situations and Washington still in a position to dictate its seeding, Rizzo isn't concerning himself with matchups.
"I don't think [it matters] going into the first round of the playoffs," he said. "We're going to dance with who brung us, and we're going to go with the team that we've had this season out there. We feel good about the guys we have throughout the season; we feel good about who we've got in our roster the way it's created."
Managerial recognition unimportant to Johnson
WASHINGTON -- If Davey Johnson were to play a word association game and the phrase "Manager of the Year Award" came up, his response might be startling.
Johnson has received the award once before -- in 1997, when he led the Orioles to the American League East title, a year after helping the team reach the playoffs via the Wild Card for the first time since 1983 -- but he and the club parted ways the same day.
"I just have bad thoughts about that," Johnson said. "The last time I got the award, it was the same time I got my pink slip."
Johnson had a rocky relationship with Orioles owner Peter Angelos, which led to the parting of the ways. But Johnson has led a similar resurgence in Washington, and the Nationals will bring postseason baseball to D.C. this fall for the first time since 1933.
Come this weekend, the 69-year-old skipper will have led four teams (including the Mets, with whom he won a World Series title in 1986) to the postseason. Entering Monday, he had amassed 2,280 managerial wins.
"I'm not big on individual awards," he said. "It's always been, 'What's the team doing as a group?' Being in the playoffs, that's step one. Winning the division, step two. Winning the World Series, step three. As far as winning individual awards, that's nice -- it's fun to be considered by your peers that you had a decent year. But it's not a big deal to me."
But because of the job he's done with the surprise Nationals this season, Johnson is considered a favorite for the award. And, of course, there's a possibility that he could meet Baltimore in a Beltways World Series later this month.
"I think it's great. Great," he said of the Orioles, another surprise success. Then he joked about manager Buck Showalter's future with the club if they win the AL East: "Beat the Yankees. Finish ahead of the Yankees. That'll get you fired."
Joey Nowak is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joeynowak. Mike Fiammetta is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.