Beguiled by the Boys of Summer
Monday, June 13, 2005
Like the first summer love of your youth, the Washington Nationals revealed all sorts of tantalizing possibilities to their enamored fans over the past two weeks, during a remarkable homestand in which the debutant team rose from a fragile fourth place to a resounding first.
What occurred over this particular fortnight has left open the possibility that this is more than just a summer fling, and that the spark will still be there when summer turns to fall and the playoffs begin to beckon. The Nationals played 13 games against four opponents and won 12 of them, including yesterday's 3-2 victory over the Seattle Mariners, their 10th win in a row.
This is what it feels like to be a nascent playoff contender in a new city as it is falling for its team: As the Nationals recorded the final out of the game, a tough grounder up the middle handled expertly by shortstop Cristian Guzman, the team burst out of its dugout and the crowd of 37,170 rose to its feet. The standing ovation lasted as long as it took the Nationals to make their way off the field, with some of the players applauding back to the fans.
"It gave me goosebumps," left fielder Ryan Church said. "I've never experienced anything like that."
In the larger baseball world, what the Nationals did over these two weeks was to establish themselves as legitimate contenders, opening a 1 1/2 -game lead in the National League East Division with 16 weeks left to play and shocking a sport that viewed them as no better than a mediocre team when the season began.
"Nobody could have foreseen [such a successful] homestand," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "I know I couldn't. It's just been an unbelievable homestand for everybody -- the organization, the players and the fans."
In equally impressive fashion, the Nationals are winning the race for the hearts of the local populace, which has been starved for a summertime sporting diversion since the old Senators left town in 1971, and which has been coming out to Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in increasing numbers this month to witness what could be Washington's first pennant race in several generations. Yesterday's crowd pushed the Nationals' season attendance total to 1,056,642, surpassing the 1946 Senators for the highest overall attendance in Washington baseball history.
"I think both the team and the fans are sensing that the winning is for real," said John Wortman, a Nationals fan from Bethesda. "This taste of being in first place is going to keep the enthusiasm going throughout -- who knows? -- maybe the whole century."
It isn't merely that the Nationals are winning. It's how they're winning that has stirred their fans' passions. Seven of the team's 12 wins during the homestand were by one run, and 11 were come-from-behind victories. Those close decisions -- and unanticipated performances from players such as first baseman Nick Johnson, closer Chad Cordero and starting pitcher Livan Hernandez -- have helped the relationship sizzle when it easily could have fizzled.
"It's amazing. They fight to the end," said Kevin Miller of Alexandria. "There's just something about this team. Every game, you wonder how they're going to do it this time."
When the Nationals arrived home May 30 from a debilitating 2-7 road trip, they had every appearance of a team about to experience a severe collapse. They had 11 players on the disabled list, the most of any team in baseball.
But instead of collapsing, they exploded, equaling the New York Yankees' 10-game winning streak last month for the longest in baseball this season. How long has it been since a Washington team was in first place as late as June 12? That would be 1933, the year the Senators lost the World Series to the New York Giants.