At Nationals Park, plenty of good seats available

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On April 21, 2019, Stephen Strasburg took the mound for the Washington Nationals in Miami and blew through the Marlins, allowing two hits in eight innings. That night, Ryan Zimmerman cranked two homers. Trea Turner sat out with a broken finger, Anthony Rendon with a sore left elbow. And Max Scherzer watched from the dugout, absolutely aching for his next start. The World Series title was still more than six months off.

On April 21, 2022 — also known as Thursday — Strasburg was in Florida, rehabbing an injury again. Zimmerman is retired. Rendon plays for the Los Angeles AngelsTurner for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Scherzer for the New York Mets. The 2022 Nationals ran out a lineup that included a pitcher who had been discarded by the worst-in-baseball Baltimore Orioles and four position players signed as free agents and given one-year deals.

The only players to start both April 21 games three years apart were outfielders Victor Robles and Juan Soto. The other seven starters in 2019, plus the injured Turner and Rendon, played 4,894 games in a Nationals uniform. The other eight starters Thursday — which includes the designated hitter — had combined for 458 appearances as Nats when the day began.

The fun, familiar reasons to show up at Nationals Park are scattered across Major League Baseball — if they’re playing at all. So just 15 games into this season, there are important questions: “Who are these guys?” dovetails with “Why should I come to the ballpark?”

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“Losing is never fun,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said before his team dropped at 4-3 decision to the Arizona Diamondbacks. “It never is. It goes against everything you’ve ever been brought up in this game to do.”

What is being required of Nationals fans right now is to remember what it was like around here in the summers of, say, 2009 and 2010. There has to be joy in discovering the players who might not help them win a game on a particular night in 2022 but could be a major contributor in a season with more promise. Josiah Gray and Joan Adon combined for 11⅔ innings of one-run ball in a Tuesday doubleheader sweep. Keibert Ruiz had two hits Wednesday and two more Thursdays. There are glimmers there: Maybe that’s 40 percent of a dominant, rebuilt rotation in 2024 and the switch-hitting catcher who will handle the staff.

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“When you see a 23-year-old starting pitcher like Adon, when you see a 24-year-old pitcher like Gray — rookies this year,” Rizzo said, “and you see Cole Henry in Double A pitching well, you see [Cade] Cavalli in Triple A knocking on the door, you see the remnants of what we discovered back in ’08, ’09, ’10.”

Remember what it was like when Ian Desmond came up in September 2009, hit .280 with seven doubles, two triples and four homers, and suddenly you thought, “He could be the shortstop on a division winner”? Remember what it was like in June 2010, when Strasburg made his 14-strikeout, biggest-event-in-baseball debutand you allowed yourself to wonder, “Could he someday be a World Series MVP?”

Transport yourself back. The years from 2012 to 2019 brought five postseason appearances, a World Series championship, plus more regular season wins than every team but the Dodgers. Don’t regret that they’re gone. Embrace that they’re a possibility again. A far-off possibility, sure — but what’s baseball without hope?

“I always talk about being where your feet are, right?” Manager Dave Martinez said. “More so now than ever before, you really got to focus on the day at hand and teaching. … It’s about growth and watching these young kids get an opportunity to play and watch them grow, watch them mature and evaluate and see where we’re at and try to figure out where they’re going to be by the end of the year and who they can be.”

As a boy, I have jotted down his goals and ambitions. Now Cade Cavalli’s dreams are becoming reality.

There is faith involved in all that for managers and executives. There’s also faith for fans. It can be a tough sell. The attendance for the four games of this series against Arizona: 9,621, 11,720, 15,774 and 14,424. The first — played Tuesday afternoon after a rainout Monday night — was the smallest announced crowd for a Nationals game since baseball returned to Washington in 2005 (excluding 2020 and 2021, when there were limitations on crowd size amid the pandemic). The others ranked fifth-, 30th- and 16th-smallest. A message for the summer: There are plenty of good seats available.

Some things to know about attendance: The number announced for any game is not people through the turnstiles but rather tickets sold. So in general, the smallest crowd of the year can provide a general idea of ​​the season ticket base — such a vital sign of a club’s connection with its fans, not to mention a key revenue stream. There are caveats — season ticket holders can exchange seats for any game and get extras for a game later in the season — so don’t draw numerical conclusions. But this is true: The Nationals don’t draw as many fans as they once did, and it’s not close.

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The reasons for all the empty seats are legion. The pandemic meant the Nationals had zero chance to capitalize — at the gate — on their World Series title. The performance of the 2021 team means almost all of the familiar faces are gone. Plus — and this is important — the uncertainty about when the season would start because of the lockout meant not only that single-game tickets went on sale late but fans had an open invitation not to be engaged with the sport at a time when they should have been gearing up for Opening Day. There was real damage done — and not just in Washington.

Linking attendance to a team’s preseason hopes or to its current record is folly. It’s much more complicated. But it’s also true that the Nats once employed a pitcher whose visage was so well-known and understood that they could paint only his eyes from him — one blue, one brown — on an elevator shaft in right field, and everybody in the ballpark knew Scherzer was watching over them.

This is an adjustment — for everyone. What to look for?

“This is such a valuable experience for these young guys — even in defeat sometimes,” Rizzo said. “It’s a learning process every time. You’ve seen Adon take steps forward. You’re going to see him take steps backward, too. Same with Gray. You’re going to see Ruiz start off hitting [.320] in his first six games and then struggle a little bit. But what you’re seeing is the core of young players that will be part of the next championship club.”

That might be so. But day after day after day, there will be bumps.

“You don’t rebuild up here,” Martinez said after the Nats failed to take the series, squandering opportunities in the eighth and ninth innings Thursday. “… We’re trying to develop winners.”

What’s left when a franchise rebuilds? A fan base with questions.

The key word: develop. In the bottom of the eighth Thursday, Ruiz came to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs. In position to be the hero, he swung at the first pitch, a high fastball — and popped it up into foul territory. Ruiz didn’t leave the batter’s box until he had slammed his bat in the dirt.

“Keibert, he’s a high-ball hitter,” Martinez said. “I think that one was just a little bit too high for him.”

Live and learn, all season long. There might not be hope for many wins in 2022. The hope has to lie in discovering the players who will provide them in the future.

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