Associated Press photo
Nationals Park is ready to host its first-ever postseason game.
Indeed, six of the Nationals' first 13 home games this season drew crowds under 20,000 to South Capitol Street.
Slowly but surely, though, the town bought into this team. And by the time the Nationals were wrapping up the regular season -- and their first-ever NL East title -- a ballpark that had never been known as a particularly rowdy venue had turned into something not seen around these parts in a long time.
"It doesn't go unnoticed," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "You could tell early on, it was almost more of a social gathering: Come out, nothing else to do, we'll just go hang out at the park. And now it's turned into some die-hard fans, some people probably skipping work and skipping school to come see the Nats. Our last few regular season home games, I think we're about as close to playoff atmosphere as you could get."
Nothing, of course, can completely duplicate a playoff atmosphere, which makes Wednesday's first-in-79-years event particularly exciting for so many.
After opening their National League Division Series with a two-game split in St. Louis, the Nationals now get to host a playoff game in their hometown, in their home park, in front of their home fans.
Considering how few people among the sellout crowd for Game 3 on Wednesday afternoon would have even had the opportunity to attend the last postseason ballgame in the District (Game 5 of the 1933 World Series), this is going to be no small-time event.
"We're excited, not only for ourselves and for all the hard work we've put in this year," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "But to bring a playoff game to D.C., it's something that's been a long time coming. They've been through a lot, a lot of tough years. It's an exciting time in the Beltway."
The setting won't be ideal -- Major League Baseball scheduled this game for 1:07 p.m. on a Wednesday, forcing fans to either skip work or school or pawn off their tickets on others who are available -- but that won't dampen the spirit as Washington puts itself on a true national baseball stage for the first time.
Official postseason logos have been painted along the baselines. Fans will be given red rally towels when they enter the park. Players and coaches will be introduced before the national anthem.
And an old friend will step to the mound to throw out the ceremonial first pitch: Frank Robinson.
The first manager in Nationals history -- not to mention one of the greatest players in baseball history -- has made a couple of appearances here since he was fired at the end of the 2006 season, but never in a public capacity. After a contentious breakup with former general manager Jim Bowden and former team president Stan Kasten, Robinson accepted the invitation from ownership to attend Wednesday's game.
The response, from fans and players alike, should be among the day's highlights.
"Oh, absolutely, hands down," said shortstop Ian Desmond, who changed his jersey number from 6 to 20 this season in honor of Robinson. "When he signed up here, he had this in mind. He wanted to start something, and he did. He's got his stamp on this organization forever. I'm forever indebted to him, and I think D.C. will be also."
There is, of course, a more significant task at hand for the Nationals than welcoming back a baseball legend. There is a slightly important ballgame to be played, one that could prove the turning point in this series.
Plenty of teams have stared elimination in the face and won back-to-back postseason games at home. Just look at the Cardinals, who pulled off that feat in last year's World Series.
But there's a distinct advantage to holding a 2-1 lead in a best-of-five series versus facing a 2-1 deficit.
"We know what it's going to take," LaRoche said. "I think we're going to try to keep it to one game at a time and try not to look too far ahead. We've got a big one tomorrow. If we don't get it done, we're in a bad spot. But we know how important that is. It would be nice to get that one and move on."
And, for so many who have anticipated this event for so long, it will be nice to experience postseason baseball in the District of Columbia.
"We've been a good home team, and we've put ourselves in a very good position to come home and just win a series," said Ryan Zimmerman, the only man to appear in at least one game during each of the Nationals' eight seasons. "If we can do that like we've done a lot of times this year, then we'll be sitting pretty.
"We're all excited to go out there tomorrow in front of our fans, in front of a full stadium of Nationals fans -- finally -- and see what it's like."