- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2011

For the first time in recent memory, cars were visible on the highest level of the parking garage outside Nationals Park. A sea of fans in red and orange filled the stadium with raucous cheering whenever either the Washington Nationals or the Baltimore Orioles made a play. An announced attendance of 35,439 would have been eye-popping for a Nationals game a month ago.

On Sunday, however, the figure seemed surprisingly low.

The Nats’ eight-game winning streak ended with a 7-4 loss to the Orioles, but even so, Washington is just two games below .500. The team has not reached that plateau this late in a season since 2005.

To general manager Mike Rizzo, the winning streak came as a result of players reaching their potential after struggling early in the year.

“I’m proud of the way they’ve played throughout the season,” Rizzo said. “Its just good to see guys revert to form. I’m a big believer in guys are going to reach their career norms or their career levels. I think were starting to see that.”

Attendance figures show that fans have started to respond to the team’s recent success. Washington has drawn 181,146 fans for the first six contests of a nine-game homestand, three each against St. Louis and Baltimore.

“I thought [the atmosphere] was awesome. I think I’ve been saying for a long time: If you put a good product on the field, you start winning ballgames and the fans will show up,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “I think this town wants to support a winning team and would love to see us win ballgames … and fight for the spot for the playoffs. We keep winning, we keep playing good, and I think this town will be real proud of this team and will show up every night to support us.”

The numbers confirm Werth’s statement. In the past six games, the average attendance increased from 21,403 to 23,104.

But the city’s changing attitude toward the Nats is equally striking. Fans have come to expect an exciting game when they come to Nationals Park.

“I wasn’t here when [the Senators were] here, so I’m looking forward to having good baseball, coming out and enjoying myself,” said Joe Taylor, who came to Sunday’s game to “spend time with the family and catch a good Nats game.”

Vickie Franks describes herself as a dispassionate Nationals fan who looks to “see what the score is and see if they won and say ‘Yay!” But now that the team has put together a winning stretch, she plans to come to the stadium more often.

“[The streak] means a lot because more people will come to the game,” she said. “I think people should support the team. Now that theyre winning, they’ll get people to come out.”

The fans’ responses to rallies by the Nationals in Sunday’s game also were indicative of their growing excitement. Second baseman Danny Espinosa’s home run to lead off the ninth inning only cut Washington’s deficit to 7-4 but was cheered like the start of a comeback.

If the Nationals keep winning, fans who drive to the stadium may find themselves on the top floor of the parking garage more frequently. The stadium will be turned from spotty to solid red by Washingtonians who catch baseball fever.

“Winning is everything,” said Jim Garner, a Virginia resident and first-time visitor to Nationals Park. “That’s what its all about. If they win, they’re going to fill the place up.”