Nats celebrate in the clubhouse after clinching a playoff spot Credit: Kelyn Soong

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Inside the Washington Nationals clubhouse on Tuesday night, players soaked each other with champagne showers. Beer flowed freely and coated the slippery, plastic covering on the floor. Pitcher Aníbal Sánchez led a conga line while blowing a whistle. “Baby Shark” blasted from the speakers. Third baseman Anthony Rendon received an alcohol-soaked “MVP” chant from his teammates.

And then there was second baseman Brian Dozier. At one point, he stood shirtless in the middle of the commotion, belted out a rendition of Puerto Rican artist Pedro Capó‘s hit song, “Calma,” and twerked, all while a steady flow of Budweiser washed over him. This reporter’s video of Dozier has hundreds of thousands of views, yet only captures a sliver of the party.

After starting the season with a 19-31 record, the Nats celebrated clinching a National League wild-card spot on Tuesday with unrestrained joy. They will play the single-elimination postseason game next week on Oct. 1.

“I’ve never seen a better group of guys that’s stuck together,” said manager Dave Martinez, his voice hoarse from yelling. “When things were bad, when things were going down, nobody quit. They stuck together day in and day out.”

Even without former league MVP Bryce Harper, who joined division rival Philadelphia Phillies in February, the Nats had World Series aspirations heading into the season. But injuries to key players, a struggling bullpen, and questionable decision making by Martinez regarding pitchers led to a dreadful first few months of the season.

By late May, fans and sportswriters called for Martinez to be fired, and it looked certain that the team would miss the postseason. Asked if he could have imagined Tuesday night’s clubhouse scene back in May, Martinez responded that he had envisioned the moment since spring training.

“I really did,” Martinez insisted. “I said it, May 24, I said this team is going to bounce back and turn around. I thought we hit the bottom then, but I said, this team … we’re going to be OK. Let’s keep fighting and here we are.”

“Here” meant the victorious locker room on a fall evening exactly four months later. The day started with the Nats beating the Philadelphia Phillies, 4-1, in the first game of a doubleheader to eliminate their division rival. Hours later, the Nats would come from behind for a 6-5 victory. The players remained on the field to watch the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Chicago Cubs, 9-2, which officially clinched a playoff spot for the Nats.

(Around the same time more than 2,000 miles away from D.C., the Washington Mystics beat the Las Vegas Aces, 94-90, to reach the WNBA Finals for the second straight season.)

“With everything that we went through as a group, I dunno, it feels so much sweeter,” said pitcher Sean Doolittle. “The last time we did this, when I was here in ’17, I think we [clinched] the first week of September, but this feels, I dunno, this feels so much better after everything we’ve been through.”

The second game had plenty of drama, though only a sparse crowd showed up at Nationals Park on a comfortable fall evening to watch the home team potentially clinch a playoff spot. The empty seats did not go unnoticed to some players.

When asked if Tuesday night’s victory will propel the Nats to their first playoff series win, Rendon told reporters, “I don’t know. It would have been nice if we had more people out there tonight. It is what it is. Hopefully, they’ll show up later on in the year.”

But those who attended got to experience the emotional roller coaster this Nats team has provided all season. The Phillies went ahead 3-0 when ace Max Scherzer gave up a three-run homer in the first inning. The Nats scored four runs in the sixth to take a 6-4 lead before Harper’s solo home run cut the lead to just one. The mere presence of Harper, who pinch hit in the seventh inning, jolted the crowd into loud boos.

The Nats will have to wait to find out if they’re hosting the wild-card game. Two more contests against the Phillies and a series against the Cleveland Indians remain. Then it’s off to the playoffs.

“It’s going to be fun,” said outfielder Adam Eaton. “Doesn’t matter where we play, it’s going to be fun. We got a shot. We got a good team.”

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