December 31, 2009 [LINK / comment]
A (half) decade of baseball in D.C.
The end of the 2009 season marked a full five years of baseball in Our Nation's Capital, so it is appropriate to look back at the moments of exhilarating glee and despondent gloom. Please bear in mind that this comes from the perspective of a fan who had suffered in the wilderness for decades waiting for baseball to return to Washington. Imagine, if you will, a man dying of thirst crawling through the desert who suddenly comes upon an oasis. Well, that's me! So, here is a brief summary of the team's first half decade, culled from my Washington Nationals page.
2005: The Nationals' "honeymoon year" in Washington surpassed all expectations, and until late in the season, they even had a shot at making it to the postseason playoffs. With a ramshackle assemblage of pretty good veterans led by third-baseman Vinny Castilla and pitcher Livan Hernandez, the Nationals somehow found a way to consistently win by narrow margins during the first half of the season. Closing pitcher Chad Cordero was at peak performance, earning a trip to the All-Star Game, along with Hernandez. The Nationals had a lead of 5 1/2 games in the NL East by July 4, whereupon the Mets beat them, marking the beginning of a downturn. As the season came to an end, the dream of a postseason berth faded away. By any reasonable standard, nevertheless, the Nationals were a huge success on the field and at the ticket office.
81-81 record, 2.7 million attendance
HIGH POINT: June 2 - June 12, ten-game winning streak, sweeping the Marlins, the Athletics, and the Mariners, all at home, to take first place in the NL East.
LOW POINT: Sept. 17 -- Padres beat the Nats 8-5 in 12 innings, after closer Chad Cordero blew a 5-0 lead in the 9th. D'oh!
2006: The fortuitous acquisition of Alfonso Soriano raised hopes prior to Opening Day, but brutal reality soon reared its ugly head. The Nats lost nine of their first ten home games, and in spite of several promising moments, they never really got into the groove after that. In May, Major League Baseball finally completed the sale of the Nationals franchise to the Lerner family, for a total price of $450 million. Soriano was the team's only All-Star in 2006, and he achieved a monumental feat, becoming the fourth player ever to get 40 homers and 40 stolen bases in one season. (The other three -- Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, and Alex Rodriguez -- were all implicated in the steroid scandal at one point or another.) September was the only month in which the Nats had a winning record in 2006, going 15-14. At the end of the season, it was announced that Hall of Famer Frank Robinson would be replaced as manager for the next season, but fans made up for the less-than-graceful treatment by giving him a warm farewell at RFK Stadium on October 1.
71-91 record, 2.1 million attendance
HIGH POINT: June 18 -- Nationals beat the Yankees 3-2 on Ryan Zimmerman's 2-run homer in bottom of the 9th, winning two out of three in the series.
LOW POINT: Sept. 27 -- Phillies win 8-7 in 14 innings at RFK Stadium, even though the Nats had scored a run in the 9th, 10th, and 14th innings.
2007: Unable (or unwilling) to bid for Alfonso Soriano, the Lerners concentrated on rebuilding the franchise's farm team system, but General Manager Jim Bowden did make another savvy deal, signing veteran first baseman Dmitri Young to fill in for Nick Johnson, who had broken his leg late in the 2006 season. Young surprised everyone by having one of his best batting years in his career, and made it to the All-Star Game. The Nationals got off to another bad start, however, and the rest of the season was pretty much like the year before, with September being the only winning month. There was some satisfaction as a "spoiler," nevertheless, as the Nats swept the Mets in a three-game series in late September, which ended up deciding the NL East race in favor of the Philadelphia Phillies.
73-89 record, 2.0 million attendance
HIGH POINT: Aug. 4 -- Ryan Zimmerman two upper-deck home runs; Nats beat Cards 12-1. (I was there!)
LOW POINT: Sept. 12, 14 -- Braves beat the Nationals in two consecutive extra-inning games, the second of which was a blown save opportunity by Chad Cordero.
2008: The inaugural game at brand-new Nationals Park was nationally broadcast, and the way it ended (see below) was as though it were scripted in Hollywood. The Nats won their first three games, raising fans' hopes, but then lost the next nine. The slogan "Welcome home" to the new stadium soon acquired a sour taste, as the team fell into a deep slump that persisted throughout the season. Cristian Guzman returned to the lineup after missing most of the two preceding years, and he finally played up to the level of expectations. The Nats' best month was August, when they went 14-15. The team then fell into a slump to close the season on a dismal note.
59-102 record, 2.3 million attendance
HIGH POINT: Mar. 30 - Ryan Zimmerman hits the game-winning home run in the 9th inning to inaugurate Nationals Park, as the Nats beat the Braves, 3-2.
LOW POINT: Sept. 19 -- The bullpen collapses once again, as the Padres score 5 in the 14th inning; beating the Nationals 11-6.
2009: In spite of the acquisition of slugger Adam Dunn, the Nationals could not get organized. Once again, the team played poorly during the early weeks, losing ten of their first eleven games. Ryan Zimmerman provided plenty of thrills early in the season, however, hitting safely in his 30 consecutive games. In spite of superb batting by Zimmerman, Josh Willingham, and Dunn, the pitching staff performed miserably. Complaints about manager Manny Acta's laid-back approach in the face of desperation led to his dismissal in July, replaced by Jim Riggleman. The team won a few games in the days that followed, but then fell into another slump in August. Adam Dunn failed to reach the  home run mark for the first time in six years. Nevertheless, there was a modicum of success at the end of the season, as the Nationals won their last seven games.
59-103 record, 1.8 million attendance
HIGH POINT: Sept. 6, 2009 -- Ryan Zimmerman game-winning 9th-inning two-run home run; Nationals beat the Marlins, 5-4. (I was there.)
LOW POINT: Apr. 17-19 -- The Marlins come from behind and win in the 9th inning in three straight games.
In conclusion, I stand by what I wrote at the end of July 2008, which was the worst month in the Washington Nationals' history (5 wins, 19 losses):
For sports fans in Washington, a last-place team is better than no baseball at all!
Brighter days ahead...
Fortunately, those days of last-place finishes may be at an end. With the acquisitions made by the Nationals over the past month, there is every reason to hope that the team will do much better in 2010, probably exceeding the .500 mark for the first time. As Thomas Boswell wrote in yesterday's Washington Post, General Manager Mike Rizzo knows what he is doing, patiently taking advantage of economic conditions to acquire good players at a bargain price. Unlike the boisterous Jim Bowden, Rizzo keeps his mouth shut while he surveys the player market and makes good deals.