Despite late slide, Nats' have a base to build on

The bubble of the Washington Nationals' dream inaugural season finally burst Sunday. The team's 6-5 loss to the New York Mets mathematically eliminated the Nats from the playoff race. (By most accounts, their prospects had been slim for the last week or so.)

But as the season comes to a close, it's important to take stock in 162 game body of work as a whole - both the good and the bad - and reflect upon baseball's triumphant return to the nation's capital.

The loss dropped the Nats to .500 for the first time since May 29, when they were 25-25. It was at that point the Nats caught fire - going on a 10 game winning streak - and by the All-Star break the Nats were 50-31 with an astonishing five-game lead in the NL East. Euphoria filled the city as fans that had waited 33 years for baseball's return realized that their underdog team was a justified playoff contender.

Sure, the Nats were playing in a run-down stadium that held more memories than real charm. And with one of the lowest payrolls in the league the predictions for the season were bleak (according to the Washington Post, Las Vegas predicted a 71-91 record for the transplanted team).

Yet not even a lack of a real television contract could stymie the city's excitement about the Nats. That excitement never fizzled throughout the highs and lows of the season, and as of Sunday the Nats had drawn close to 2.6 million fans to RFK, a full 200,000 more fans than their I-95 rivals, the Baltimore Orioles.

That fan support also drove up the price of the team (the Nats are currently owned by Major League Baseball). Back in March the expected sale price of the Nats was between $325 and $350 million; in the last week Major League Baseball announced that they had received several $450 million bids for the team.

Plans are for a new stadium for the team along the Anacostia waterfront are progressing, though they were thrown a curveball last week when a D.C. Councilman demanded a remodeling so that the Capitol Building could be seen from the stadium.

While they are not completely certain, stadium plans, owner selection and final attendance figures will all turn out favorably for the Nats. However, the one large question mark lingering in fans minds is the reason for their teams late-season demise.

Injuries played a large roll in the Nats' sharp, second-half drop off. That drop-off continued Sunday, as the loss to the Mets was the Nat's seventh in eight games and dropping them to last place in the NL East standings.

Washington's biggest weakness appeared to be their inability to win close games. They had more than 20 one-run losses, a bitter pill that seems especially hard to swallow now that the Nats are out of the playoff race.

Even considering all of their late season problems the Nats seem to be on the cusp of something great for next year. Several young players (Ryan Zimmerman, Rick Short, Marlon Byrd and Ryan Church) showed serious potential in extended playing time they received toward the end of the season. And having a real owner who can finance off-season personnel moves will drastically improve this team.

Combine those young players and personnel improvements with the Nats rapidly expanding fan base and you could have the formula for a baseball town that's hopping with activity well into each and every October.

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