By Steve Ginsburg
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Washington Nationals clinched the National League East on Monday, igniting celebrations in this success-starved city that are usually saved for winning baseball's World Series crown.
Despite losing 2-0 to the Philadelphia Phillies, Washington secured the division title when the second-placed Atlanta Braves lost to the Pirates 2-1 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh.
When the Braves' loss was flashed on the scoreboard in the ninth inning of the Nationals' game, the crowd of 35,387 stood up and cheered wildly and the players hugged in the dugout.
Fireworks lit up the sky after the game while the players doused each other with champagne in the clubhouse.
"It's surreal," said reliever Tyler Clippard, wiping the champagne from his eyes. "It's hard to put into words. You play this game for these moments.
"And when they're here you try to enjoy it as much as you can. At the same time, it's motivation to keep it going because these are fun times."
When the players were told the crowd had remained in the stadium, they left the clubhouse and came back to the field to continue the party.
Beer baths and champagne showers continued on the field while a group of players circled the stadium perimeter to slap hands with the fans while the music blared.
The Nationals (96-64) had not had a winning season since arriving in Washington from Montreal in 2005 and will play in the postseason for only the second time in the franchise's 44-year existence.
Washington's off-season acquisition of pitcher Gio Gonzalez, whose 21 wins leads Major League Baseball, and the emergence of 19-year-old rookie outfielder Bryce Harper helped transform the club from perennial losers to World Series contenders.
"I'd rather be in a situation like this, coming from the bottom of the barrel, working our tails off to get where we're at right now," said Clippard. "It's just that much more gratifying."
The Braves (93-67), having already clinched a playoff spot, are three games behind Washington with two games left in the regular season.
"This feels terrific from where we were just a few short years ago," general manager Mike Rizzo, architect of the team's turnaround, told reporters while two full cans of beer were poured on his head. "The fan base is electric.
"This is just one of our stops. We're looking to do bigger and better things. We're so excited to take this first step and see where this thing leads us."
The Nationals' postseason appearance will give the city its first taste of playoff baseball since the 1933 World Series when the Washington Senators lost to the New York Giants in five games.
Washington has had several franchises since then but none of them were successful and left town.
For Harper, who was called up from the minor leagues early in the season, the celebration at the pro level was a new experience.
"This is unbelievable," he said. "We want to enjoy this with these fans and this city. We sure know they've been waiting for it."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)