Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
With a paid crowd of only 10,999, there were plenty of empty sections.
"Before the game, we could tell the crowd was down," Jim Riggleman said. "It had all the elements that would cause that to happen."
Indeed, a Monday night contest in late September against a low-profile opponent is a bad combination and leads to small gatherings. Of course, the overriding factor has nothing to do with the night of the week, the time of the year or the name on the visiting team's jersey. It has everything to do with the home team's record and the manner in which it performs on the field.
The Nationals set a new franchise low tonight when only 10,999 seats were sold to paying customers. Then they went out and played down to the crowd, slogging their way through an 8-2 loss to the Astros that featured a seven-run fifth inning in which three errors were committed.
This, of course, was the Nats' fourth straight loss, their 10th loss in 12 games and their 73rd loss in 115 games since hitting their highwater mark of the year (20-15) way back in May.
Is it any wonder so few people turned out to watch it in person?
"We've got a lot of entertaining guys," the always-honest Adam Dunn said. "But you look at our record, why would you come see us?"
No argument here. The Nationals haven't given their fans many reasons to show up for a while now, certainly since Stephen Strasburg's elbow popped. Sure, there have been some nice moments along the way -- Ryan Zimmerman's July 31 walkoff home run against the Phillies, a 14-5 thrashing of the Cardinals on August 28, Danny Espinosa's two-homer game in a Labor Day blowout of the Mets -- but there have been far more sub-par performances than encouraging ones.
The storyline to many of these losses start sounding familiar. Starting pitcher can't make it through five innings. Lineup can't sustain any momentum. Defense boots the ball all over the place.
We saw all three during tonight's loss, with a fifth-inning defensive meltdown as ugly as anything we've seen all year. Three errors (one charged to Dunn but probably Livan Hernandez's fault, one charged to Willie Harris, one charged to Roger Bernadina) led to four unearned runs.
"We should be able to play better than that," said Harris, who dropped a routine line drive hit at him in left field. "Those errors, those are stupid errors. Those are errors that we cannot make, myself included."
The shame of it all is that the Nationals make nearly as many highlight-reel plays in the field as they make errors. Espinosa and Zimmerman made a pair of spectacular plays on successive at-bats in the sixth inning tonight. Of course, by that point they were already trailing 8-2, rendering their excellence moot.
"We had a terrible inning," Riggleman said. "The next inning, we're making plays. Espinosa and Zim made great plays. The previous inning, it just didn't look like the same club."
If it seems to you like the defensive miscues come in bunches, you're right. The Nationals have actually played 70 errorless games this season, posting a 32-38 record. That means they've committed all 120 of their errors in only 80 games, a staggering rate that has resulted in a 30-50 record.
Overall, the Nationals' record now stands at 62-88. Which means they'll need to go 8-4 the rest of the way to reach 70 wins. A 6-6 finish would result in 68 wins. A 1-11 finish would prevent a third consecutive 100-loss season. Amazing that we even have to point that out right now.
In one sense, it really doesn't matter what the final record says. Is a 70-92 club really all that much better than a 65-97 club? Not when progress is being measured more by individual improvements than collective ones.
By just about any reasonable measure, the Nationals will be in better shape at the end of 2010 than they were at the end of 2009. They've identified Ian Desmond as a legitimate piece to the long-term puzzle. They've seen enough from Bernadina and Michael Morse to believe each will play some key role (whether starting or off the bench) in the future. They've seen Espinosa reach the majors and not look fazed by the bright lights. They've acquired one of the top young catchers in the game in Wilson Ramos. They've assembled a talented, deep and young bullpen led by Drew Storen, Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard that has a chance to be really good. And they saw Strasburg captivate the entire baseball world, something that won't happen again until late-2011 or 2012, but still should happen again.
But here's the problem: In slogging their way toward the finish line, the Nationals are doing a pretty good job of masking the actual progress they've made this year.
"You worry about that a little bit," Riggleman said. "The fans have supported us so well. It's been great support here. I think people have gotten excited about some of the nice players we've put out there. But when you lose too much, people are going to get disillusioned with it.
"We can't let that happen. We've got to keep playing with energy, keep playing hard, battle for nine innings and not take innings off. The other club's going to get you if you do that, and that's what happened tonight. We can't allow it to happen if the atmosphere around the ballclub is that progress isn't being made. Because we know progress is being made. But every now and then, we take a step backwards."
It's those backwards steps -- and there have been plenty of them lately -- that lead to that disillusionment. It's being felt across the fan base right now, a fan base that keeps wanting to believe things are getting better, but more importantly wants to see tangible signs of that improvement.
For those few souls who were part of the wrong kind of record-setting crowd tonight, there were no positive signs, only another uninspiring performance from a team that looks like it can't wait to get through these next two weeks.
Can you really blame all those who didn't show up?