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Washington Post Photo

I’ve been a season ticket holder for each of the 15 years the Washington Nationals have been in DC.

That’s not as long as I’ve been a Red Sox fan – since I was seven years old, 69 years ago – nor have I been as obsessive about the Nats as I have been and am about the Sox. But I’ve attended approximately 20 Nats’ games each year since 2005 and enjoyed most of them.

After all, it’s baseball, which I love, and when watching the Nats, I don’t have to be afraid of high places or sharp instruments (my usual concern when watching the Sox). And in every game I’ve attended, I’m always looking for something I’ve never seen before.

Last night that ‘never seen before’ was not so much what happened on the field, though that was thrilling, but what happened in the stadium.

Bear with me for a bit of background and several diversions.

The Nats have won the NL East Division four times (2012, 2014, 2016, and 2017), but they’ve never won a post-season series and were eliminated from post-season play in each of those four years (often in game five).

That changed last night. (I’ll leave it to the water cooler pundits – do they still have water coolers? – to argue as to whether a one-game Wild Card playoff can be considered a post-season series.)

The game opened with the Nats’ franchise face, All Star pitcher, 35 year-old Max Sherzer, giving up a walk to the lead off batter and then immediately thereafter a home run to the Milwaukee Brewers’ second batter, Yasmani Grandal.

Bang. Down 0-2 after less than five minutes.

It got a bit worse in the second inning when Scherzer gave up his second home run, this time to Eric Thames. Now it was 0-3. Was this going to be a one and off and just another post-season heartbreak for the Nats and their fans?

Until the 8th inning nothing changed. Scherzer settled down, as he often does after giving up his usual two home runs a game, but he wasn’t sharp. Stephen Strasburg, 31, took over in the 6th inning and did what he’s been doing all season (18-6 for the year with 251 strikeouts), shut down the opposition though it was the first time he’s pitched as a reliever. Over his three innings, he only gave up two hits, struck out four, and kept the Nats in the game.

But they couldn’t score more than the one run they got in the third inning (a home run by Trea Turner). The Brewers pitchers shut down the Nats with just three hits through the first seven innings.

On came Brewers’ truly sensational All Star closer Josh Hader (138 strike outs in 75 2/3 innings this year…virtually unheard of in the history of baseball). He just needed to get the final six outs so his team could win the Wild Card game.

Another digression please.

The Nats started the 2019 season with great expectations and predictions of winning the NL East Division by nearly everyone who follows baseball. Then they lost 19 of their first 31 games. The Phillies, Braves, and Mets were looking good, and the Nats seemed headed for a dismal year.

Then they went 69-36 beginning in June to end with a 94-69 season record and a Wild Card playoff spot. The Brewers went 20-7 in September, even without their wonderful right fielder, All Star and 44-home run hitter Christian Yellich. Though the Brewers faltered in their final season series, the stage was set for one of baseball’s cruelest tests, a one play-off game to continue towards with World Series.

In the 8th inning of last nights’ 163rd game of the season, Hader faulted. Despite his 100+ fastball, he couldn’t keep the Nats off the bases (thanks to a disputed hit batsman to pinch hitter Michael A Taylor, a broken bat, bloop single to center by the aging and oft injured 35 year-old Ryan Zimmerman, and a walk to the dangerous but slumping MVP candidate Anthony Rendon).

Then the baseball Gods smiled on the Nats and rained on the Brewers’ fortunes when the 20 year old Juan Soto hit a sharp line drive to right, scoring two for the tie, and when 22-year old rookie Trent Graham  misplayed (bad hop?) that line drive, Rendon scored from first, giving the Nats a 4-3 lead. (Soto was tagged out between second and third but celebrated, along with the 42,933 fans in the stadium, despite his mistake in allowing himself to be the third out of the inning.)

Then in the 9th, on came the shaky Nats’ bullpen in the person of Daniel Hudson, who shut down the shocked Brewers and nailed the 4-3 victory, saving not only the game but also the reputation and confidence of the shaky bullpen and the play-off season for the Nats.

So why was this night different from all others as I indicated at the outset above?

For me. it was not that the Nats won, although I loved that.

It was not simply the manner in which they won, though that was thrilling too.

It was what occurred in the stands.

In the 15 years I’ve attend Nats’ games (approximately 300 games), I’ve never seen the Nationals’ fans as they were last night. From the time we entered the stadium until we left three and a half hours later, there was not a moment of silence. There was not just a buzz when we arrived; the fans were already making themselves heard. The cheering, flag waving, and chanting prior to, during, and at the conclusion of the game was something I’ve never seen or heard here before. The fans were not just loud (led by a speaker system and scoreboard that encouraged their emotions), they were relentless. Even when Scherzer put them in a hole right off, the fans were not silenced.

Another small diversion. When I went to the fourth game of the Red Sox World Series game in St. Louis in 2004 with the Sox up three games to zero and not having won a WS in the preceding 86 years, the truly wonderful Cards’ fans around me said the Sox would not win in four, not that night, not in St. Louis. Then Johnny Damon hit a lead off home run for the Sox into the Cards’ bullpen, and the air went out of the stadium.

Not so at Nationals Park last night.

The fans were on their feet as much as they were in their seats, a phenomena I’ve never seen in Washington, where the fans are not particularly vocal nor overly demonstrative.  (I’ve spent some time in Arrowhead Stadium, home of the Kansas City Chiefs, and understand what it’s like to be with truly vocal and demonstrative fans.)

Last night, the fans were truly a part of why the Nats’ won. They never gave up, despite the dreaded feeling that the Nats were about to be eliminated once again.

Final diversion. I don’t know what people saw who were watching the game on TV, though I saw on Twitter from a long-time Fenway friend that at one point the camera showed eight straight TV shots of Nats’ fans holding their head(s) in their hands prior to that 8th inning rebound. But that’s not what I experienced in the stadium. I don’t mean to take anything away from what the Nats’ players, manager, and entire team accomplished. They truly never gave up (forgive that tired phrase) and never seemed to feel they were entirely out of it, a spirit they have shown for much of the season.

While there were a number of Nats’  ‘heroes ‘ in this win, it was the energy, voices, and the once in 15 years truly exuberant enthusiasm of the fans that I believe made the difference in DC last night.

Indeed, what a delight to walk out of the stadium and hear the sustained chanting and celebration of the 42,993 participants in this win.

PS – The Nats record since June, that 69-36 run. is a game and a half better than the 104-58 Dodgers did since June. Da Bums, who play in a much weaker Division than the Nats, better not take this team, nor its fans, for granted for the best of five starting Thursday.