- The Washington Times - Monday, October 3, 2005

They won more games than most expected, they drew more fans than most expected, and they gave the people of Washington more nightly thrills than anyone could have possibly imagined.

And though the Nationals’ inaugural season ended yesterday with a 9-3 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, it was hard to find anyone at rickety, old RFK Stadium who wasn’t satisfied with the overall results of the past six months.

Not the Nationals, who despite their late-season collapse, still finished with an 81-81 record. And certainly not the 2,731,993 fans, 36,491 of whom turned out yesterday to say thanks to the ballclub that captured their hearts all summer.

“To me, it’s been a great year,” right fielder Jose Guillen said. “I’ve been on winning teams; I’ve been on losing teams. This has been a lot of fun. I don’t think anyone can complain about it.”

Even if the Nationals didn’t cap off a remarkable season with a playoff berth. After going 50-31 in the first half of the season, they stumbled to a nearly mirror-image 30-51 record in the second half and finished last in the National League East division.

Still, they were legitimately in the NL wild-card race well into September and weren’t officially eliminated until a week ago. Not bad for a club that went just 67-95 a year ago as the Montreal Expos.

“It would have been really a fairy tale if we could have pulled this thing off,” manager Frank Robinson said. “They wouldn’t have even touched this in Hollywood.”

The folks in Hollywood might have had a hard time believing this team’s story, but the fans in Washington made it possible.

No one knew what to expect from a local viewing public that hadn’t had a hometown team to root for in 34 years. And the Nationals had to contend with the presence of the Baltimore Orioles less than 40 miles up the road from RFK.

Turns out the Nationals were the hottest ticket in either town. They averaged 33,728 fans in 81 home games, outdrawing the Orioles by more than a thousand per game.

All that support wasn’t lost on Washington’s players, many of whom used to play in front of minor-league-sized crowds in Montreal and Puerto Rico.

“I’m very surprised about the education of the fans here in Washington,” outfielder Brad Wilkerson said. “It was great. They know the game of baseball. They’ve been in every game. They bring a whole new energy to the ballpark for us. … It’s been a great love affair for us so far.”

The Nationals sent that love right back to the fans after yesterday’s game, tossing balls, bats and other assorted goodies into the stands as they received a standing ovation after the bottom of the ninth.

At the center of it all was Robinson, the 70-year-old Hall of Famer-turned-manager, whose future with the club is uncertain, but who relished every moment of his first season in the District.

“The crowds just kept getting larger and more enthusiastic as the season went on,” he said. “That’s something you can’t predict. … The fans caught on real fast and stayed with this team all year long. We really appreciate that.”

The Nationals’ big draw at the gate certainly was buoyed by their early-season play on the field. During one stretch in early June, they won 10 straight games, all at RFK, and in the process, moved into first place in the division.

On July 4, a crowd of 44,331 packed the place to watch the team with the second-best record in the league take on the New York Mets. Washington lost that game, and from that point on, things were never the same. It was the high-water mark of the season, not that anyone realized it at the time.

In the next three weeks, this feel-good story turned into a nightmare. Injuries, a slumping offense and perhaps the pressures of the pennant race finally got to the Nationals. They lost 18 of 23 games, fell out of first place and eventually fell out of the playoff race.

But there remained a bright spot for fans yesterday: There are only 135 days until the start of spring training.

“We’ve got the talent in this clubhouse to do some special things,” Wilkerson said. “If we learn from some of the mistakes we’ve made … I think we’ll go a long way next year.”

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