- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 30, 2009

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

Hope filled the air for 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: the franchise’s surprise playoff drive in 2005, Ryan Zimmerman’s run of game-winning homers in 2006, the opening of Nationals Park in 2008.

But there have been far more frustrating days than hope-filled ones in franchise history, especially the past 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.

“Nobody’s happy about our year,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “Individually, some guys have had some very nice years. But overall, we’re part of a team and we’re part of an organization, and we want to be proud of it.”

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

As was the case a year ago - when Stephen Strasburg already was 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 past 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.

“He’s got a chance to be a good one, I think,” Zimmerman said.

With the score tied at 3-3, two runners on and one out in the eighth, Desmond hit a sharp grounder up the middle. Former Washington shortstop Anderson Hernandez, who had committed a throwing error moments earlier, flipped the ball to second baseman Luis Castillo, who threw wildly into the first-base dugout. Justin Maxwell came racing around to score the go-ahead run.

It took another standout defensive play, this time by right fielder Elijah Dukes, to secure victory No. 54. With a man on first and two out in the ninth, New York’s David Wright smoked a drive to right-center. Dukes never gave up on the play: He made a lunging catch of the ball a split-second before slamming into the fence and falling to the ground, ball still in glove.

“I must say, it feels good when you come out with the ball when you crash into the wall - instead of crashing into the wall without the ball,” he said.

The crowd of 19,614 cheered Dukes and the home team. No doubt many of those fans in attendance Tuesday 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, but a late September evening of baseball is preferable to no baseball, right?

“The Mets are out of it. We’re out of it, but that was an exciting ballgame,” Riggleman said. “We gave our fans an exciting ballgame.”

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 on a comebacker Aug. 23 but never faced more than three batters in an outing. Burnett won’t need surgery, 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 who will take Ross Detwiler’s spot in the rotation for Saturday’s start at Atlanta. Detwiler, who earned his first major league win Monday, is being shut down after throwing 147 1/3 innings between Washington and the minors. Riggleman said Marco Estrada and Zack Segovia are options to start, though he might go with an assortment of relievers.

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