- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 30, 2009

On Sept. 29, 2004, a group of city leaders stood proudly inside the National Building Museum in downtown Washington, donned curly W caps and celebrated the return of baseball to the District.

Hope filled the air, as fans across the region rejoiced over the arrival of the Montreal Expos 33 years after the Senators bolted town. It figured to be the first of countless hope-filled days in the weeks, months and years to come.

Five years later, that remains one of the high-water marks in Washington Nationals history. Sure, there have been some memorable moments since then, whether the franchise’s surprise playoff run in 2005 or Ryan Zimmerman’s run of game-winning homers in 2006 or the opening of Nationals Park in 2008.

But there have been far more frustrating days in franchise history than hope-filled days, especially over the last two seasons. Even with a 4-3 victory Tuesday night against the New York Mets, the Nationals had little reason to turn their five-year anniversary into a full-blown celebration.

Losers of 100-plus games for the second straight season, Washington also will own the majors’ worst record for the second straight season and thus will pick first in the amateur draft once again. A victory Monday by the Pittsburgh Pirates ensured the Nationals’ place alone at the bottom of the standings. The 2010 draft remains eight long months away, but the Nationals are already on the clock.

As was the case a year ago — when Stephen Strasburg was already a household name long before he was drafted first overall — another young phenom is drawing unparalleled hype. Whether 16-year-old catcher Bryce Harper proves to be the consensus No. 1 pick remains to be seen. But if the Nationals want Harper, he’s all theirs.

Given their struggles on the field the last two years, the Nationals have no choice but to promote the future. Several potential pieces to a promising future have been on display during the final weeks of this season, including Ian Desmond, who provided the biggest thrills Tuesday. The rookie shortstop doubled, homered and hit the grounder that wound up producing the winning run.

With the game tied 3-3 in the eighth and two runners on, Desmond hit a sharp grounder up the middle. Former Washington shortstop Anderson Hernandez, who had just committed an error moments earlier, flipped the ball to second baseman Luis Castillo, who then threw wildly into the first-base dugout. Justin Maxwell came racing around to score the run that gave the Nationals their 54th victory of the season.

A crowd of 19,614 cheered the home team. No doubt many of those fans in attendance Tuesday night also cheered five years earlier upon learning they were going to live in a baseball town again.

These years may not have produced the kind of baseball everyone expected back then. But a 54-win baseball team still is preferable to no baseball team, right?

Notes — Unable to pitch with a bone bruise in his left thumb, Sean Burnett was sent home for the season’s final week. The reliever had appeared in nine games since suffering the injury Aug. 23 on a comebacker but never faced more than three batters in an outing. Burnett won’t need surgery or any other kind of procedure, but he does need to rest the thumb and ran out of time to make a full recovery before season’s end. …

The Nationals haven’t decided yet who will take Ross Detwiler’s spot in the rotation and start Saturday against the Atlanta Braves. Detwiler, who earned his first major league win this week, is being shut down after throwing a total of 147 1/3 innings between Washington and the minors. Interim manager Jim Riggleman said Marco Estrada and Zack Segovia are options to start, though he might also go with an assortment of relievers.

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