The Washington Times - April 17, 2012, 10:22AM

Monday night, Stephen Strasburg took the mound and pitched for six innings. Nationals owner Ted Lerner was in attendance, as were 16,245 fans. It was the smallest Nationals Park crowd the 23-year-old phenom has ever pitched in front of. 

That’s just a statement of fact. And there were certainly plenty of factors — including the NHL Playoff game going on down the street and extremely high pollen counts for allergy sufferers — that likely went into the low number. It was also Monday night in April and there’s nothing unique about the Nationals’ drawing a small crowd on the first Monday night in April.

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Since Nationals Park opened in 2008, the first non-Opening Day Monday or Tuesday night home game of the season consistently draws significantly small crowds.

Last year, the Nationals drew just 13,413 for the first Tuesday night of the season (they were off the day before) and brought in just 11,623 the year before on the first April Monday. In 2009, only 12,473 showed up. Even in 2008, when the Nationals had barely taken all the bubble wrap off their sparkling new stadium, the first Monday night in April drew 20,487 — less than half the park’s capacity.

By that measure, the 16,245 was the second-highest draw for this type of game in the park’s history. 

My colleague Mark Zuckerman wondered aloud on his blog Monday morning what the attendance would be like for Strasburg’s first home start of the 2012 season. When the right-hander was a rookie, every start was an event. Strasmas, they called it. When he was a rehab project, working his way back from Tommy John surgery, he still drew better than most as the earlier glimpses of him (before surgery stole a year of his career) had been so few. The article Zuckerman wrote was more about Strasburg’s novelty and whether it’d finally worn off than it was a comment on the D.C. sports fans and whether or not they were coming out to cheer on their first-place Nationals. 

But judging by the reaction on twitter and elsewhere, plenty seemed to take the low number in that manner: as an indictment of D.C. sports fans. 

The Nationals finished 20th in attendance in MLB last year, averaging 24,877 fans, the highest they’ve been since Nationals Park opened and they finished 19th with an average of 29,005 fans. There’s no question anyone involved with the team would like to see higher figures and a full park on a nightly basis, but it’s probably unfair at this juncture to say that this year will be just like the previous four in the park’s history. This team may actually give fans a reason to visit. 

The Nationals are counting on it.

“Listen, it’s like anything else in sports,” said principal owner Mark Lerner last Thursday as the team was selling out the stadium for the home opener. “You get ‘W’s‘ on the scoreboard, people are going to come.”  

“There’s no doubt these fans are craving a winner and they’re right. They should come when we’re good. And we’re good now. They should be coming out. This is a team they can be proud of and proud to wear our hat in the stands.”