ST. LOUIS -- The Nationals did their part, but the champagne remained on ice for another day.
Needing a win and a Braves loss to clinch their first National League East title Saturday night, Washington escaped Busch Stadium with a 6-4 win thanks to a bizarre sequence early on and Kurt Suzuki's game-winning, two-run double in the 10th inning.
But the Braves would not allow the Nationals to celebrate just yet, beating the Mets, 2-0, at Turner Field. That froze Washington's magic number at one, so the Nationals can claim the division title as soon as Sunday with another win over St. Louis or a loss by Atlanta. Unlike Saturday, they will arrive to the ballpark knowing that, with one more win, they can accomplish their season-long goal of winning the NL East.
"It's the best position you can be in. I think we've put ourselves in a good position all year," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We did everything we could to give ourselves a chance, and now we're to the ultimate position where we've given ourselves the best chance, I guess you could say."
"I'm assuming every night they're going to win. That's the way it's been for the last month and a half. It's up to us, not them," said closer Drew Storen. "We control our own destiny. We do what we do, and we're going to be there."
After the Cardinals rallied back from a four-run deficit to force extra innings, Adam LaRoche walked to lead off the 10th. He moved to second on Roger Bernadina's sacrifice bunt and took third on a passed ball after St. Louis decided to intentionally walk the scuffling Danny Espinosa to get to Suzuki. That decision backfired, as Suzuki crushed a line drive to left-center field off Fernando Salas to drive in LaRoche and Espinosa.
Suzuki, who went 2-for-5 from the eighth spot in a Nationals lineup held scoreless after the first inning until his clutch hit, has batted .435 (10-for-23) with seven RBIs over his last six games.
"You definitely want to be in those situations," Suzuki said. "I was excited that they walked Espinosa. That kind of lights a fire under you a little bit. Not that you don't go up there with a fire under you anyway, but especially in that situation, they want to pitch to you. So you want to go up there and make them pay."
With a four-run lead and Jordan Zimmermann cruising along after six innings, it didn't look like the Nationals would need Suzuki to come through in the clutch again.
But after tossing six scoreless innings, Zimmermann ran into trouble in the seventh. He gave up three straight one-out hits, including a two-run double by Pete Kozma, then walked pinch-hitter David Freese, bringing his otherwise excellent night to a disappointing end. Sean Burnett entered in relief and gave up an RBI single to Jon Jay, cutting Washington's lead to one run.
Ryan Mattheus relieved Burnett with two outs, the tying run on second base and Matt Holliday at the plate, and stepped up to the moment, inducing a flyout to right field to get out of the inning.
"He's been big all year long in tough situations," manager Davey Johnson said. "And I wouldn't have any qualms about closing with him. He's not intimidated by the situation."
Tyler Clippard walked a batter in the eighth inning, but the Nationals went to the ninth clinging to a one-run lead after a double play started by shortstop Ian Desmond. Storen came on seeking his fourth save, but he gave up the tying run on two ground-ball singles and Jay's sacrifice fly to deep center field.
"They were good pitches. If you're getting ground balls and they're finding holes, you can't really do anything about that. Good for them finding the hole," Storen said. "I just pitched myself into a jam, and I just need to make the adjustment to make a better pitch there."
The Nationals only withstood St. Louis' rally for that long thanks to a strange first inning. Cardinals starter Kyle Lohse loaded the bases with one out, bringing up Michael Morse with a chance to blow the game open.
Morse swung at the first pitch he saw, launching it directly into an advertisement just beyond the right-field fence. The ball bounced off the sign, off the top of the fence and back onto the field, and the first-base umpire Chris Guccione ruled it a single. The call was overturned, and Morse was awarded the grand slam.
"I completely missed location on Morse. It was supposed to be a sinker in," Lohse said. "I just pulled it down and away. He did a good job of putting a good swing on it."
But to make it official, all of Washington's runners had to return to their original posts and trot around the bases again. Morse even took another grand slam swing, this one a pantomime without a bat.
"I think we were all just so happy that it counted, we would've gone back as much as they wanted," Zimmerman said.
And they will come back to Busch Stadium on Sunday, one win away from what they have wanted all season.
"It's fun. I like it," Johnson said, smiling. "I'll sleep good tonight."