Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Nyjer Morgan scored the Nats' lone run in tonight's 7-1 loss.
They don't number in the tens of thousands, but they're there every night through thick and thin. And when the final inning of the season at Nationals Park arrives, they make their way down toward the dugout to bond with each other and bid farewell to their team.
What they lack in numbers they make up for in dedication. Lord knows, it takes some serious dedication to support this franchise on a daily, monthly and yearly basis. For six years now, they've been turning out, having not tasted a whiff of anything resembling a pennant race since that first season at RFK Stadium.
And they haven't gone unnoticed by the men in uniform who offered thanks to them all after tonight's unspectacular 7-1 loss to the Phillies.
"The number of fans that comes out is going to double and triple here when we really get it going," Jim Riggleman said. "And we want that to happen sooner than later, but for the ones who are here now, the ones who are here through the tough times. They're so supportive.
"You don't get any of the negative stuff, the catcalls and booing of players. I think they appreciate our guys play hard and give a good effort. Our players appreciate the way our fans treat them here. It's going to get the reputation of a great place to play. But you can only wait so long. Fans have been very patient."
Yes, they have. They were patient through two losing seasons to close out RFK. They were patient through two 100-loss seasons to open Nationals Park. And they were patient through this up-and-down season that will result in an improvement from 59 to something between 68 and 71 wins but still feels like a missed opportunity in many ways.
"The fans are growing with us," Adam Dunn said. "These fans didn't grow up Nationals fans. There weren't kids that were 4 years old that are now 35 that are lifelong Nationals fans. The fans are growing with the organization. If you go anywhere else and the team loses 100 games for two straight [years], it would be a boo-fest. People would come to boo and not to watch baseball."
There were the occasional boos in NatsTown this season, but overall the vibe was one of encouragement more than discouragement.
But those days probably have come to an end. When those die-hards return for Opening Day 2011, they're going to expect something more. After six years of suffering, they're ready to receive some payoff for their dedication.
Not a pennant race. No one's going to reasonably expect that, not with Stephen Strasburg set to spend the first half of 2011 in the solitary confines of Viera, Fla. But a .500 record is a reasonable goal, and anything less than that would have to be considered a disappointment.
"We're going to improve somewhere between [nine] and 11 wins from last year," Mike Rizzo said today. "I think if we take the same track, that progression puts us somewhere in the .500 type of range if we can match that same progression. So I think we're on our way to the competing stages right now. And soon, with some improvements to the roster, getting to the next level would be the objective."
So how do they get there? Well, re-signing Dunn would be an important first step. Rizzo said today his team needs a cleanup-hitting first baseman and "we want it to be Adam Dunn."
Dunn didn't exactly state a strong case for a contract extension tonight when he went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts. That Golden Sombrero, though, may have been due in part to the jitters he felt realizing this might be his final home game as a National. He admitted he "tried to hit every ball as far as I possibly could."
The butterflies increased in number during Dunn's final at-bat in the bottom of the ninth, when the crowd rose and offered a standing ovation.
"You can't even put that into words," he said. "That's the first time in a long time I've had that feeling of ... I wouldn't call 'em nerves, but I would call 'em jitters. I haven't had that in baseball in a long time. Tonight, for some reason, I had it, and it was a pretty cool feeling."
Improvement in 2011, of course, will require more than Dunn's re-signing. Rizzo says his top priority this winter is to acquire a No. 1 starter to fill the void left by Strasburg's injury. He'll also need to add a veteran arm to an already talented bullpen and significantly bolster what was a wretched bench this season.
Improvement will need to come not only from outside sources but from within. Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos need to take the next step. So do Drew Storen and Jordan Zimmermann. Nyjer Morgan needs to rediscover the form he displayed prior to this season or else lose his job altogether. Roger Bernadina and Michael Morse need to establish themselves as legitimate pieces to the puzzle.
Put that all together, and the Nationals as a franchise can take the next step in 2011 and appease a fan base that desperately wants to see tangible signs of progress in the standings.
"We want to win just as bad as anyone else," Ryan Zimmerman said. "We have great fans here. Everyone wonders why we don't sell out and stuff. When you win, you'll sell out. The next step is just kind of fine-tuning the team that we have, going out and addressing the needs that we need in the offseason, and I'm sure Mike is on top of that, just like he's on top of everything else. That's kind of the next step, to go out and get what you need and go from there."
If they can do that, if the Nats can add the necessary pieces, retain the necessary cogs and see their burgeoning young corps make the necessary strides, success can come next year.
And perhaps on September 25, 2011, when those die-hards gather behind the dugout for the ninth inning of their home finale against the Braves, they'll be celebrating more than the conclusion of another baseball season.
Perhaps this time, at last, they'll be celebrating the conclusion of a winning baseball season.