The Nationals’ surge to the top of the standings has hit the area like a summer-long derecho. Attendance is up at Nats Park, television ratings are through the roof, and with the team bringing playoff baseball back to Washington for the first time since FDR’s first year in office, it’s time for all holdouts to climb on the bandwagon. To do that, you need to know a few things.
It’s okay Stephen Strasburg isn’t coming back! As promised all year, the phenom won’t be available for the playoffs. But the best pitching staff in the league (yes, that’s us) loses its most talented pitcher, and it’s still among the best. Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann (and everyone else on the team, really) are sensational. Zimmermann, recovered from the same surgery Strasburg had, has blossomed into a star. Gonzalez has been similarly dominant, slinging All-Star curveballs while grinning like a hopped-up meerkat.
About those Presidents . . . . The most adorable Nationals might be the giant mascots modeled after Mount Rushmore’s visages—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt—that race nightly around the outfield. Teddy’s inability to win is a seven-season running joke, so seeing how he loses on a given night has become appointment viewing. No one knows when Teddy will finally break through, but the team’s first home playoff game makes as much sense as any other date.
Rookies bring the energy. Bryce Harper is one of the most hyped prospects in baseball history. The 19-year-old has won over fans dining on Pop-Tarts at the Capitol Hill hangout Ted’s Bulletin, added energy to the dugout by stealing home, and puts lots of runs on the board. Fellow rookies Steve Lombardozzi and Tyler Moore provide their own boost from the bench.
Veterans guide the team. The pitchers and prospects have received the attention, but it’s the core of veteran position players who will be leaned on in the postseason. Jayson Werth—who signed a $126-million free-agent contract in December 2010—is a reliable leader, both at the plate and in the clubhouse. Meanwhile, talismanic third-baseman Ryan Zimmerman has been the one constant since the Nats’ arrival.
More wins mean more revelry. This year the Nationals have had to work overtime to keep dugout celebrations fresh. We’ve seen the proliferation of several rituals, such as the Michael Morse gum toss (nothing gross—just buckets of unchewed gum tossed around the dugout like confetti). The one celebration that has bridged the gap between players and spectators is the Sharkadina Chomp. Anytime reserve outfielder Roger “the Shark” Bernadina—so dubbed for the speed and ferocity with which he closes on any ball hit his way—does something of note, you’ll see everyone from the fans in center field’s Red Loft bar to the players on the dugout rail mimicking a shark’s jaws with their arms.
You should be there in person to get the full effect. Even if you aren’t sold on this whole baseball thing, Nats Park is a great excuse to grab a Ben’s Chili Bowl half-smoke. We’re pretty sure this is exactly what Irving Berlin had in mind when he wrote “God Bless America.”
This article appears in the October 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.