The Washington Nationals arrived this week. From late Tuesday night, when Bryce Harper’s first walk-off hit landed in left field to beat the Mets in 12 innings, until Sunday afternoon, when Washington won, 4-3, to finish a three-game sweep of the Red Sox at Fenway Park, every part of a fast-rising first-place franchise was on display. After 111 years as — almost always — a baseball afterthought, this Washington team, with the second-best record in the majors and a charismatic cast, has caught the whole sport’s eye.
Harper provided the bookend moments. Held out of the starting lineup Sunday, the 19-year-old rookie still managed to score the winning run. After a pinch-hit walk in the ninth, he dashed around the bases — catch me if you can — on a hit-and-run liner down the right field line by Roger Bernadina. As the rattled Red Sox slightly bobbled a relay throw, Harper slid home and slapped home plate with his hand. The kid may be the symbol, but he has simply drawn a spotlight to everything about the team, from Tyler Clippard’s three straight saves at Fenway to the dominance of a Nats rotation that stifled the Red Sox.
The Nats arrived on Thursday, too, although in an entirely different sense. A crowd of 32,096, easily the largest at Nats Park for a weekday matinee, showed up despite a paucity of Mets fans. This was an almost purely Nats crowd, part of a quietly rising attendance boom that’s been growing with each homestand.
Washington’s gate is up 30.4 percent over 2011, date-for-date. Last week, the Nats (average attendance: 28,335) pushed past the Mets, Diamondbacks as well as the Marlins, despite their new park in Miami.
The Nats also arrived, big time, on Friday night at Fenway Park when Stephen Strasburg struck out 13, Harper was a triple shy of the cycle and Boston was beaten so soundly that Nats cheers, including plenty from knowledgeable New Englanders, were the main sound. Strasburg, 24 in July, showed he’s no longer a budding star. He, too, has arrived with a 2.48 ERA and 208 strikeouts in just 29 career starts. Baseball has few better pitchers.
On Saturday, Gio Gonzalez also beat the Bosox, showing why he’s second to Strasburg in the National League in strikeouts as well as the game’s hardest pitcher to hit this season. The Nats’ rangy infielders, Ryan Zimmerman, Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond, glittered all day. Sean Burnett and Clippard closed for a bullpen that’s among the best despite lacking its best, Drew Storen, who will return in July.
With the Nats leading the strong NL East thanks to the best team ERA in the sport (2.98), the savvy baseball reporters in New York and Boston praised the Nats as fresh protagonists and worthy additions to the game’s grand theater in this and future years.
“The most fascinating team in baseball,” the Boston Herald said.
Like a blurred shape in a dim room that suddenly jumps into crisp resolution when a light is switched on, the Nats have suddenly come into focus. They had been noted previously; now they will be closely observed.
Seldom does such recognition happen so fast, but that’s the marvel of non-fiction over fantasy. What we anticipate (the Nats are too young, too injured, not quite ready) does not matter. Events take control, consequences follow and the ante of attention is upped.
The Nats are not yet under a microscope, but baseball has its magnifying glass out, that’s for sure, to examine this new creature.
More important to the team’s long-term health, Washington itself, so often burned by baseball, so seldom loved (unless you count one World Series win in 1924 as sufficient recompense), has gradually fallen for a young team that is almost entirely homegrown.
Perhaps the team’s conspicuous camaraderie or the certainty that the club’s core players will stay intact for several years is part of the sudden romance. And that first-place thing helps a lot, too.
Here’s the average attendance progression for the Nats’ first four homestands: 24,712 to 27,589 to 30,852 to 32,955 last week. In part, it’s the warming weather. But by the time the Yankees sell out the joint three times next weekend, the Nats will have played 14 of their first 31 home games before crowds from 32,955 to 42,331.
Just as the Nats’ profile is skyrocketing, the argument between the Nationals and Peter Angelos’s MASN network over the value of Washington’s cable TV rights has met yet another delay. The sport’s revenue fairness committee has delayed giving its opinion of the fair market value of the Nats’ TV rights until July 1.
Talk about luck. The longer the haggling, the more likely the value of the Nats rights will jump. The 2012 payment is $29 million. The reset figure the Nats seek is $108 million per year for five seasons. Nats to MASN: Keep stalling, the price goes up.
A baseball team’s story isn’t a novel with just one plot twist. The Nats’ tale over the next several seasons will make your head swim; that’s almost a guarantee. Every chapter has its own twists. In this month’s installment, the Nats are getting healthier, with slugger Michael Morse back from the disabled list, just as they meet tough AL East foes in 15 straight games.
But the major news is not the outcome of the next few weeks or even this whole year. The change is much more basic. After baseball returned to D.C. in ’05, the franchise lost its way. Then, both leadership and luck improved. A rebuilt front office under Mike Rizzo learned to function, sometimes after plenty of arm-wrestling, with a Lerner family ownership that has proved itself capable of learning a new industry.
Also, good fortune in the amateur draft, plus willingness to spend, has changed the Nats narrative. It’s not just Strasburg and Harper. The pipeline includes half-a-dozen elite prospects. In another splash last week, the team took a shrewd gamble by picking a high-ceiling pitcher, Lucas Giolito, 17, with the 16th overall pick. Why did 15 teams pass on a 6-foot-6 pitcher who has touched 100 mph? Sore elbow, may be tough to sign. “No brainer,” Rizzo said.
What the cognoscenti at Fenway Park gushed over this weekend, Nats Park will display for years. All this good cheer guarantees nothing except that, from now on, the Nats will be watched intently here and nationally, too. Washington has joined the main characters on baseball’s stage for the first time since the 1930s.
True, it’s hardly an empty proscenium on which the Nats find themselves. They’re part of a crowd of Rangers and Dodgers, Cardinals and Rays, Yankees and Braves, perhaps 10 fine teams with obvious prospects, clubs that might do anything or not much.
But this was the week when many, and not just in Washington, began to suspect that a time may come — distant, perhaps, but not remote — when the Nats may actually stand alone on that big stage.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/