- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2008

The Washington Nationals‘ first season at their new stadium ended Thursday night with a two-hour rain delay, a ticket presale of just 21,000 and the few fans in attendance watching the Cubs-Mets game on the center-field scoreboard. That the Nationals were rained out was a fitting contrast from the euphoria of Opening Night and a barometer for a season that has gone strikingly off course.

Thursday, which was to mark the Nationals’ final home game of the year, instead culminated in the second rainout this season and closed an inaugural year at Nationals Park that has fallen below expectations in almost every area. Attendance lagged at the end of the season, costing the Nationals a chance to average 30,000 fans a game and giving Washington the distinction of the lowest attendance for a team in its first season at a new ballpark since the 1982 Minnesota Twins.

The Nationals finished 34-46 at home and drew more than 35,000 fans just seven times.

But manager Manny Acta had plenty of positive things to say about how the team was received in the new ballpark.

“[The attendance is] not disappointing to me because we’re averaging almost 30,000 people here a game and we’re dead last in our division,” Acta said. “I don’t think everybody here just shows up to watch the ballpark.”

Asked for his favorite moment of the year, Acta didn’t offer the predictable choice - Ryan Zimmerman’s walk-off home run on Opening Night - but picked a different game-ending homer.

“The homer by [Ronnie] Belliard against the Orioles [on June 29],” Acta said. “The Opening Night one was awesome because we were opening the ballpark and all that, but we blew the lead. The game against the Orioles that made us tie the Beltway series, we were so down that day. It was so hot. We felt so hopeless with George Sherrill in there and two outs. And then we get a single and then a walk-off. That one, for some reason, sticks in my mind.”

The early perception about Nationals Park was that it would play fair, and both the numbers and players’ feelings back that up.

Park-adjustment ratings show Nationals Park was slightly tilted toward pitchers (the ballpark rated a 94; 100 is neutral, and anything under that favors pitchers).

And Zimmerman said nothing about the park gave an unfair advantage to either pitchers or hitters.

“It’s a pretty fair park,” Zimmerman said. “I think it plays just like you’d want it.”

Zimmerman said his homer against the Braves was the one that meant the most personally but pointed to the others - Belliard’s, Wil Nieves’ first career homer to beat the Cubs, Elijah Dukes’ shot at the end of a doubleheader June 5 - as evidence that the Nationals’ first year in their new home wasn’t all negative.

“As bad as this season has been and as long as it’s been, we’ve had a lot of great moments, too,” Zimmerman said. “We’ve got to kind of look at the positives, look around and see what these young guys have been doing all year and how good we could be.”

Season-ticket holders will have the value of their tickets and parking passes applied to the cost of 2009 tickets, while single-game ticket holders can redeem their tickers for any Monday-Thursday nonpremium game during the 2009 season. Fans must present Thursday’s ticket at the time of redemption.

Zimmerman still sick

The third baseman, who missed Wednesday’s game with the flu, was out of the Nationals’ lineup again Thursday night.

Acta said Zimmerman saw a doctor and received a shot Thursday but still had problems swallowing.

He said Zimmerman should play at some point during this weekend’s series at Philadelphia.

Rotation pushed back

The Nationals moved their rotation back a day, meaning Collin Balester will pitch Friday in Philadelphia, to be followed by John Lannan and Odalis Perez.

Shairon Martis, who was scheduled to pitch Sunday against the Phillies, will be available out of the bullpen.

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