Phillies 9, Nationals 3

When it was over yesterday, they gathered around the home dugout along the third base line, the fans who remember the final days in 1971, the last time Washington had a baseball team, and those who weren't even a glimmer in anyone's eye back then. They cheered and they clapped and they yelled out their thanks, and the Washington Nationals did all they could to thank them in return. As the love-fest grew -- with the players tossing bats and balls and caps and T-shirts into the crowd -- the 9-3 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies seemed to slip away in the fading light. The three straight losses that gave them an even .500 record at season's end were gone, too. The fans at RFK Stadium embraced them, and they responded.

"Special," is how Manager Frank Robinson described it, and in one simple word, that's what it was, because there have been countless other mediocre baseball seasons in plenty of other major league cities that have meant far less than this one. So when Robinson, 70 years old and a Hall of Famer, pointed his right index finger to fans -- indicating they were No. 1 -- he meant it. When Chad Cordero -- the closer whom Robinson brought in for the first time in 10 days just so he could receive an ovation -- hurled baseballs into the upper deck, he could say, quite genuinely, "I got goose bumps."

And even when hardened veterans exchanged hugs on the field, a way of saying goodbye after eight months of spring training and the season, there was something extra. They remained there more than five minutes, with each other and the fans, and the love ran both ways.

"It was a great feeling," left fielder Brad Wilkerson said. "It was just different, in that we had a going-away present from the fans last year in Montreal. And this year, it was like we had a home."

If there is a grace period for professional sports franchises, the Nationals experienced its crest yesterday evening in front of an announced crowd of 36,491 fans, who absorbed a beautiful, cloudless afternoon at RFK. That they had a second half of the season that Robinson called "a nightmare" will matter a great deal in coming years, when having baseball back in the nation's capital will be less appreciated and more of an assumption.

But for a few moments, there was, of all things, joy, even in yesterday's loss, even in the fall from 50-31 at the halfway point to 81-81 in the end, even in rooting for a club that finished where nearly everyone expected at season's start -- in last place in the National League East.

"They've enjoyed having baseball back in D.C. so much," right-hander John Patterson said. "And I think every one of us out there, every player, fed off of them. They treated us so well. We know in the future, they'll expect more from us. Hopefully, we'll be able to deliver."

On a day when a victory would have ensured a winning record, they couldn't deliver. The Phillies came to Washington this weekend with playoff hopes still very much alive, and they played like it, sweeping a three-game series in which no other outcome was acceptable. When Philadelphia poured on four more runs in the ninth to break open a 5-3 game, they extended their season by maybe 30 minutes, but made their postgame moment of celebration that much shorter.

In Houston, the Astros -- who led the NL's wild-card race by a game -- held a two-run lead over the Chicago Cubs in the ninth. By that point, the Phillies needed a miracle -- a comeback from the Cubs, eliminated long ago -- to force a one-game playoff for the wild-card berth. They didn't get it, and the Phillies' season ended in the cramped visitors' clubhouse at RFK.

So even with the pain of the horrendous second half, the mood in the Nationals' room was cheerier, and not in small part because of the fans.

"Hell, all year, we couldn't have asked for more from them," catcher Gary Bennett said. "And they sure could've from us."

That much is true, for the second half exposed myriad problems with the team's personnel. The Nationals were, without question, baseball's worst offensive team, last in batting average, runs, hits, RBI, total bases, home runs and slugging percentage. "This team is not set," Robinson said.

Far from it. There also is no owner, for the franchise continues to be run by Major League Baseball, an arrangement that began in 2002 -- when the team was still the Montreal Expos -- and could run through this month. That the team needs to acquire two more starting pitchers and at least two impact hitters in the offseason and could be hindered if a new owner isn't named soon.

"Certainly, timing's important," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "Out of respect to the new ownership group, we'll do everything we can, especially in the month of October, trying to wait on making large decisions, if possible, until they're named and in place and are able to give more input and more parameters, out of respect to them.

"However, when we get to the point where decisions have to be made, or we'll lose the year, we'll go forward and make those decisions at that time."

Some of the offseason will be spent, to be sure, wondering exactly what went wrong after the all-star break, when the Nationals won just 29 of 74 games.

"I look at it like this," Robinson said. "Maybe we weren't ready to take that big step, as a team, as an organization."

What they could do, though, is turn their attention to the people who forgave all that, the thousand or so fans who pushed to get as close as they could at game's end, wanting just one more moment to savor baseball's first season back in Washington.

Nationals Manager Frank Robinson waves to the crowd after the season's final game. Fans in the outfield seats at RFK Stadium show their gratitude for the Nats. "They treated us so well," pitcher John Patterson said of the team's supporters.Jose Guillen signs autographs before the game. The team also stayed on the field after the game to mingle with fans.