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SNYDER: Nationals’ bandwagon is starting to fill up

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The Washington Nationals didn't shine in their first coast-to-coast broadcast since Nationals Park opened in 2008. ESPN's audience for Sunday Night Baseball saw Philadelphia deliver a 9-3 beating and watched Washington outfielder Jayson Werth suffer a broken wrist.

To the uninitiated, the five-time NL East champs simply routed the perennial also-rans, inexplicably featured in prime time. But well before Jordan Zimmermann's first pitch that evening, observers across the country knew that Washington is an up-and-coming force.

Residents of our metropolitan area might be slower to realize the Nats' new status, which is perfectly understandable. Considering the team's losing ways since it relocated from Montreal, and the 33-season drought in D.C. prior to 2005, would-be fans' recent options merely went from no baseball to bad baseball.

That's OK. The Nats have an entire summer to get locals up to speed and show that things have changed.

As my colleague Patrick Hruby reported in Tuesday's article on the Nats' standing in D.C., there's a long way to go. But unlike critics who bemoan the attendance, like when phenom Bryce Harper made his home debut last week, I think the market is coming around reasonably well.

This isn't St. Louis or Boston or New York, where season tickets are passed down and generations grow up rooting for the home team. This also isn't Tampa Bay or Arizona — Major League Baseball's youngest franchises (14 years old) — which have struggled with attendance at times but also have reached the World Series.

Entering Tuesday, Washington was averaging 25,791 fans, good for 12th in the majors. That's better than tradition-rich Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, as well as San Diego and Houston. In the American League, only Texas, New York, Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles and Minnesota average larger crowds than the Nats.

With the Capitals' season ending at some point within the next 24 hours or 36 days, it's just a matter of time before more locals focus on the Nats. Latecomers will join the folks who have paid attention all along and recognize that Washington is no longer a joke.

Philadelphia can attest to that fact. Though they won Sunday's finale, the Phillies lost the series and their fans lost their comfort zone. For a change, Nationals Park wasn't transformed into Citizens Bank Park South. The Nats drew 106,931 fans over three days, the second-largest total for a home series in April or May, with the vast majority cheering for Washington.

The marketing department's "Take Back the Park" campaign played a huge role in the crowd's demographics and boosted interest in the budding rivalry. The TV audience was introduced to "Natitude," a slogan that's been derided but has successfully forged a new identity.

Losing Werth for 10-12 weeks will hurt the Nats' momentum, but Harper might be enough to keep it going and draw new converts. He has excelled through his first week in the majors, impacting every phase of the game in dramatic fashion. Arguably the Nats' best player since he was called up, Harper has a can't-look-away quality that will pay off at the box office and in the TV ratings.

But pitching has been Washington's strong suit, and that won't change with Werth's injury and the continued absence of slugger Michael Morse.

Ace Stephen Strasburg (1.66) is among three starters with an ERA less than 2.00, while the rotation entered Tuesday with a 2.17 ERA. The staff's ERA is 2.59, more than a full run lower than the league average (3.72).

The first-place Nats will continue to be a factor if they pitch like that, regardless. If the offense comes around, too, watch out. The nation gets another glimpse when Washington visits Atlanta for Sunday Night Baseball on May 27.

By then, more locals will have heard the word and climbed aboard. This ride has just begun.

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