- The Washington Times - Monday, October 3, 2005

When it was over, when Cristian Guzman swung and missed a Billy Wagner 98mph fastball for the final out of the season, they rose to their feet.

They gave the Philadelphia Phillies, 9-3 winners but still one game short in the National League wild-card race, time to congratulate each other in the infield. But once the visitors cleared and Frank Robinson emerged from the home dugout, the RFK Stadium crowd of 36,491 burst into applause and didn’t stop for more than five minutes, not until the last Washington National (infielder Jamey Carroll) ducked back under the dugout overhang and out of sight.

Their team may have concluded its inaugural season in utter mediocrity — 81 wins, 81 losses — but the appreciation and love that flowed from crowd to players and back late yesterday afternoon confirmed this was anything but a mediocre ballclub.

This was Washington’s team, and after a 162-game season filled with joy, heartache, laughs, frustration and countless memorable moments, both sides stuck around to milk every last second of it. It was as though no one wanted to admit it was over.

“This is very special,” a surprisingly emotional Robinson said later. “I haven’t been connected with anything like this before.”

A connection — maybe that’s the best way to describe the relationship the Nationals and their new fans forged during the last six months. On that cold April afternoon when the club first set foot inside RFK for an exhibition game, hardly anyone could have picked Ryan Church out of a crowd.

But when Church hit a three-run homer that day against the New York Mets, the rookie outfielder suddenly had endeared himself to Washington fans. So when he clubbed another three-run shot yesterday in the season’s final game at RFK — symmetry, anyone? — everyone in attendance already knew who he was and what he had meant to this team at various points during the season.

“It feels like these are the same people that were here when we first stepped out on the field, and they welcomed us,” Church said. “Now they’re kind of saying goodbye for the summer.”

Church’s upper-deck homer wasn’t the only bit of symmetry yesterday. RFK was oozing with it. In losing their last three games, the Nationals wound up going 31-50 during the second half of the season after opening 51-30. They went 41-40 at home, 40-41 on the road. Their regular season began April4 in Philadelphia when they were beaten by Phillies right-hander Jon Lieber. It ended yesterday in Washington when they were beaten by … Jon Lieber.

It all added up to a season of much promise but also one of missed opportunities. A Nationals squad that led the NL East as recently as July26 and led the wild-card race as late as Aug.20 finished last in the division.

Admittedly, this was the best last-place team in baseball, only the second .500 club to finish last in the history of the game (joining the 1991 California Angels).

But it was still a last-place team, one that realizes it could still be playing today had it just hung on during the long summer.

“To be honest, I’m going to think about what could have been,” outfielder Brad Wilkerson said. “I’m going to drive myself, and hopefully guys will drive themselves, to get over that hump. … It’s going to hopefully motivate me even harder this offseason to try to get to that point where it’s going to allow us to win those games.”

As it turned out, yesterday’s game was meaningful only to the Phillies, who came in needing a win plus a Houston Astros loss to the Chicago Cubs to force a one-game playoff for the wild card. Philadelphia held up its part of the bargain, getting seven strong innings from Lieber, clutch RBI from Kenny Lofton and Bobby Abreu and two hits from Jimmy Rollins, who extended his hitting streak to 36 games.

But moments after Wagner struck out Guzman to end the game, the Phillies learned the Astros had won, dashing their playoff hopes.

So both the Phillies and Nationals packed their bags last night, dispersing throughout the country for a long offseason. In Washington’s case, though, several key figures departed having no idea whether they’ll be coming back in April.

Just like on Opening Day, just like those the three rough seasons in Montreal, this club remains the property of Major League Baseball. A new owner has been promised, but no one knows when he will be named. It could happen in days, perhaps weeks, perhaps more than a month.

All of it left the Nationals feeling a bit uneasy as they left RFK for a long winter.

“I have a lot of emotions,” said general manager Jim Bowden, one of the parties whose fate remains uncertain. “Number one, I’m very thankful for this opportunity that I’ve had here. No matter what happens, whether I’m back or not, no one can take this great year away from me.”

The day was emotional for Robinson, too, perhaps more so. As the 70-year-old giant of the sport walked off the field, it had to cross his mind that this may have been the last time he wears a major-league uniform.

“It’s kind of the strangest feeling I’ve ever had at the end of any season,” he said. “It just feels like it’s not [the end]. It can’t be.”

The 2,731,993 fans who watched Robinson’s club at RFK throughout this remarkable season, through all the highs and the lows, might be feeling the same way this morning.

Is it really over?

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