And what a year it was!
Why can't every month be June? If I had to choose, I would much rather have the Nationals soar to first place at mid-season and then fall back, than the alternative of playing poorly early on and then recovering toward the end. Sure, Washington fans were disappointed by the second half of the season, but our new home team gave us plenty to cheer about from beginning to end, and at least showed occasional bursts of excellence through September, remaining in the hunt for the wild card spot. Here are the "Top Ten" games of the year, in terms of excitement, historical significance, and/or setting trends in the divisional race, in chronological order: (Dates are links to the respective blog posts.)
- Apr. 4 -- Phillies 8, Nats 4. The Nationals' very first game; I was there! [changed, 1/13/06]
Apr. 6 -- Nats 7, Phillies 3. The first win, sparked by Brad Wilkerson's "cycle."
- Apr. 14 -- Nats 5, Diamondbacks 3. The first home game; sunny skies, sold-out crowd.
- May 30 -- Nats 5, Braves 4. Close score, tense finish, perfect weather. (I was there.)
- June 5 -- Nats 6, Marlins 3. Ryan Church home run keys Nats' surge to first place.
- June 14 -- Nats 6, Angels 3. Frank Robinson complains about pine tar, benches clear, Nats rally.
- July 4 -- Mets 5, Nats 2. RFK nearly full, but 4th of July spoiled, beginning of the awful downturn.
- July 15 -- Brewers 4, Nats 3. Game decided by Mike Stanton's balk (?!) in 10th inning.
- Aug. 4 -- Nats 7, Dodgers 0. Grand slam by Wilkerson, 13 Ks by Patterson; are bad days over?
- Sept. 17 -- Padres 8, Nats 5. 12 innings; Cordero blows 5-0 lead in 9th. Ouch!
- Sept. 21 -- Giants 5, Nats 1. Another HR by Barry Bonds ends Nats' postseason hopes.
|Month||Wins||Losses||NL East place
|Sept. - Oct.||12||17||5||19||601,059||31,635|
SOURCE: My unofficial daily tabulations from MLB Gameday stats and Washington Post.
Fan support: HUGE!
There is no question that baseball was a smash hit in Washington, and the regular big crowds played a big part in the team's success, at least through mid-season. It was a mutual love affair between players and fans. The 2.7 million total attendance at games in RFK Stadium this year exceeded their target by 300,000, and their 33,584 average attendance was more than 3 ½ times the tickets sold for Expos games in Montreal and San Juan last year. (Because of the phenomenon of tax-subsidized "phantom fans," the number of people who actually showed up for games at RFK Stadium was probably about 10-15 percent less than that; let's say 28,000 real live fans.) In terms of "announced" attendance, the smallest crowd was 23,332 on April 26 against the Phillies; in only three other games was attendance below 25,000. In contrast, there were eleven games in which attendance was over 40,000! Meanwhile, the Orioles' 2005 total attendance of 2.6 million was only slightly below last year's total, providing undisputable proof that the effect on the Orioles' attendance from a team in Washington was much less than owner Peter Angelos had claimed it would be. (Indeed, the decline was even less than I expected.)
Divisional series begin
For most of the summer, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago White Sox totally dominated their respective leagues, and it is no surprise that they dealt roughly with, respectively, the Padres and the Red Sox in this afternoon's games. The Cardinals built an 8-0 lead by the fifth inning, but then got complacent, as the Padres staged a three-run rally in the top of the ninth, loading the bases before the final out was made. Final score: 8-5. We later learned why Padres' starter Jake Peavy's pitching was off today: He had fractured his rib while celebrating his team winning the NL West last week. In Chicago, the five runs they scored in the first inning were all the the White Sox needed. A.J. Pierzynski hit two homers and a double, and was also hit by a pitch, as were two of his team mates, in that big first inning! Poor Matt Clement. The White Sox piled on additional runs in the later innings, clearly lusting for a trip to the World Series. Final score: 14-2. You may recall, however, that the Red Sox got some experience in rebounding from huge defeats last year, so they're not necessarily doomed. Now the Yankees and Angels are warming up in "LAnaheim." Presumably the Yanks will not be as complacent as they were three years ago!
UPDATE: Rookie 2B Robinson Cano knocked in three runs with a double in the first inning, getting things off on the right foot. The extra room in Angels Stadium's left field worked to the visiting team's advantage in this instance. The Angels would have scored a run in the second inning but for the low fence in the right field corner, as the ground rule double hit by Steve Finley forced Juan Rivera to stop at third, and the next batter, Adam Kennedy, flew out. The rest of the game was a pitcher's duel, as Bartolo Colon pitched for five scoreless innings, but could not get run support. There were several long fly balls to the warning track, but only one home run, by Bengie Molina. The Angels made things interesting in the bottom of the ninth as Vlad Guerrero walked, stole a base, and made it to home on a high-bouncing single by Darin Erstad, but that was the end of it. Final score: 4-2.
Here's an interesting factoid: Of the 24 teams that played in the first round divisional series over the past three years (including many "duplicates," of course), only three of the higher-seeded teams with the initial home-field advantage -- 12.5 percent -- went on to the next round! To me, that is clear indication that the present format does not sufficiently reward teams with a better regular season record. Once again, I say: Wild card teams should face a higher postseason "hurdle." You can keep track of all the playoff game scores, for this year, and for the last three years, on the Postseason scores page.