Nats have nothing to be ashamed of

Friday night was not the best time to be a baseball fan in the D.C. metro area. In the span of a few hours not only was my admittedly unlikely dream of an Orioles-Nationals World Series crushed, but the Nationals completed what will become known as one of the most infamous playoff collapses in recent D.C. sports history — not that there have been many chances.

It was great to finally see some offensive production early, and when the Nationals took a 6-0 lead in the third inning, I felt somewhat secure that I’d be going home the next week to watch an NLCS game in Washington. The pesky Cardinals were by no means finished, as they were only down 7-5 in the top of the ninth. But I was confident ­— no, certain — that with two outs and a two-run lead, there was no way that the Nats wouldn’t convert the save and soon be dousing each other in champagne.

Obviously St. Louis didn’t get the memo. Down to their last strike multiple times in the ninth inning, the defending World Series champions came through in the clutch, drubbing Drew Storen for four runs.

For a team with the best record in the majors, the Nationals had both astoundingly inconsistent pitching and bats.

Even with the top of the Nationals’ lineup coming to bat in the bottom of the ninth, you knew it was over; the Cardinals had completely stolen the momentum. The Nats finished the game with a 1-2-3 bottom of the ninth while watching their opponents celebrate what should have been their trip to the NLCS, on their home field. It was one of the most painful moments as a Washington sports fan I can remember.

In my entire life, I’ve never had the experience of any of my teams having a realistic shot at a championship. The Redskins have made the playoffs three times since I was born, never making it past the divisional round. The Orioles made the ALCS in 1996 and 1997 under Davey Johnson, but being four years old at the time, I can’t say I remember the Orioles ever being good.

The Wizards made the playoffs from 2005-2008, but Gilbert Arenas’ knee injury and gun debacle effectively crippled that team. Even the Capitals, arguably the most successful Washington team in recent history, always find a way to underachieve in the playoffs.

Life’s been tough for D.C. sports fans. Until this season, I often couldn’t tell if I was watching the Nationals play or their Single-A affiliate, the Potomac Nationals.

But that all changed this year, as the Nationals were one of the hottest teams in the majors at the All-Star Break. Being the cynical Washington sports fan I am, raised in a tradition of losing, I kept waiting for the wheels to fall off of this too-good-to-be-true season. But as October neared and the Nationals maintained their lead over the Braves in the NL East, the World Series talk was as unavoidable as the undeserved Redskins Super Bowl hype is every preseason.

The cynicism faded and playoff anticipation started to build, culminating in the final game of the season when the Nats secured the top seed in the NL and more importantly, our beloved Teddy Roosevelt won his first Presidents Race after 525 consecutive losses.

St. Louis may have dealt the Nationals what seems like a premature playoff exit, but Nationals fans shouldn’t mourn the loss. The Cardinals can never take away the memories made during the course of this season, including the franchise’s first winning season and NL East Championship, as well as possibly the quote of the year courtesy of outfielder Bryce Harper.

With one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, a very young roster peppered with a few steely veterans and a deep bench in the Goon Squad, the Nationals seem bound for many more trips to the playoffs. Obviously nothing is guaranteed in sports, as Nats fans found out in the cruelest way Friday night. But with Stephen Strasburg back and a year of playoff experience under the franchise’s belt, I think the fans have a lot to look forward to in the coming years.

The night before I moved back to Charlottesville, I went to D.C. with my family to watch Strasburg one last time as he took on the Braves. After a convincing 4-1 win in the rain, I overheard a rather intoxicated Braves fan yelling, “Nobody was a Nats fan before this year, and nobody will be in two years when they suck again.”

All of the fans I celebrated with just a few years ago at both RFK Stadium and Nats Park — when wins were still rare — would disagree that “nobody” was a fan before this year.

Speaking for all of the baseball fans in D.C. and Northern Virginia, especially those who grew up after the Senators left in 1971 — better to have loved and lost — we had to wait long enough to be fans. For years we had to drive to Baltimore to watch the Orioles play, while suffering seemingly unending letdowns after rumors of bringing a team back to Washington or Virginia failed to materialize.

Who cares if some fans are only coming to games now because the Nats are winning? The sellout crowds only enhance the experience for everyone else. And regardless of whether or not you think Nats fans are “true” fans or not, this bandwagon is rolling on into 2013. So come next season, feel free to hop on board. I’ll save a seat for you, just make sure to bring your Natitude.

Do not wallow in the loss, Washington fans, but rejoice in the arrival of a new era of baseball in D.C. Will the Nats make the playoffs next year? That’s a clown question, bro.

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