- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 7, 2005

They have a $47 million payroll, about one-quarter the size of the New York Yankees, and only a handful of names recognizable to the casual baseball fan.

But look at the standings this morning and you will find a surprising city listed atop the National League’s East division: Washington.

Yes, the never-say-die Nationals, winners in seven of their last eight games, enter tonight’s game against the Oakland Athletics at RFK Stadium with a 31-26 record, good enough for first place in the ultra-competitive NL East.

It’s the first time a baseball team representing Washington has been in first place this late in a season since 1933, when the Senators won their final American League pennant, and the town is taking notice.

A crowd of 40,995 witnessed Sunday’s 6-3 win over the Florida Marlins, bringing the club’s season average attendance to 32,067, 12th highest in major league baseball. The Nationals have drawn 865,829 fans over 27 home games this season, already surpassing the 1971 Senators’ full-season attendance by more than 200,000.

In fact, by the end of this week’s homestand, the Nationals will have drawn more fans than any incarnation of the Senators did in 71 years of existence, surpassing the single-season record of 1,027,216 set at Griffith Stadium in 1946.

Nationals fans are elated by the unexpected success of the team.

“I’ve never been a big fan of Washington sports, but now the Nats are here, they are pretty good,” said Mark Wilson, 26, of Harrisonburg, Va., who was passing time yesterday playing video games at the ESPN Zone downtown. “I’m most definitely excited. It feels great to have a team from the area doing well.”

Even casual observers are keeping a close eye on the team.

“They are better than I expected, and now I’m interested in where they are headed,” said Christopher Mandel, 42, a self-described “non-fan” from Dupont Circle. “I know they are at the top, but people still take it far too seriously.”

But taking the team seriously may be called for after all, said Ed Brozostk, 54, of Aspen Hill. He hopes that the Nationals’ current success will mean good things for the city, the team and fans come October.

“They’ve got a good [manager] and enthusiastic players who play well as a team,” Mr. Brozostk said. “I hope they go to the playoffs, and it’d be nice to see them in the World Series. I think they have a shot. I’m optimistic.”

While those in the stands at RFK are rejoicing over the Nationals’ sudden and surprising fortune, those in the home clubhouse are trying to take it all in stride.

“I don’t want to put too little emphasis on it. I don’t want to put too much emphasis on it,” manager Frank Robinson said. “I’m proud of where we are. It’s better than being in last place. But emphasize that this is June. We have to understand that and keep our focus, keep our feet on the ground, keep our heads in the same cap size.”

Robinson knows what he’s talking about. Throughout his career, both as a Hall of Fame player and as a manager, he has seen plenty of underdog ballclubs fade.

The Nationals weren’t expected to be playing this well when the season began two months ago, and with 10 players currently on the disabled list, there is still plenty of reason to doubt they can sustain this level of success.

There are also reasons, however, to believe the Nationals can hang around in the pennant race for the long haul, as evidenced by the past week.

Washington returned to RFK on May 30, reeling from a dismal 2-7 road trip and staring at a daunting homestand against the Marlins and Atlanta Braves — the two expected front-runners in the NL East.

The Nationals trailed at one point in all seven games against those two clubs yet rallied to win six of them. The heroes came in all shapes and sizes. Backup catcher Gary Bennett drove in a career-high five runs one night. Little-used pitcher Sun-Woo Kim came through with 31/3 scoreless innings of relief another night. Rookie outfielder Ryan Church twice drove in the game-winning run.

“It’s not supposed to be that way,” veteran infielder Carlos Baerga said. “But every day is something new. We do something to make us come back, make us believe in ourselves. It’s awesome.”

Washington now has 21 come-from-behind victories this season, tops in the majors, and has won eight games in its final at bat.

That’s the kind of experience that can rub off on a young team and catapult it over the top during a tough pennant race.

“This type of baseball is good for you,” Robinson said. “It really builds a team’s resilience and confidence. We’re playing close ballgames, and we’re winning our share.”

For now. There’s a conventional belief in baseball that you can’t take a team seriously until it’s still in contention on the Fourth of July. That’s still a month away, so for those fans who already are looking to put down deposits on World Series tickets, Nationals second baseman Jamey Carroll has some words of caution.

“It’s just the first of June,” Carroll said. “There’s a lot of baseball to be played.”

• Amy Doolittle contributed to this article.

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