It’s been a while. The last time the Nationals played a critical series at home against a direct competitor for a playoff spot was Sept. 2-4, 2005 against the Philadelphia Phillies. Those Nats, newly transported from Montreal, shocked baseball with a 50-31 record on July 3 before slowly fading.
But even in the final month of the season they trailed the Phillies by just three games for the lone National League wild-card berth with a much-anticipated series set for RFK Stadium. It was a crowded race with the New York Mets, Florida Marlins and Houston Astros all sitting between Washington and Philadelphia so even a sweep wasn’t enough to move into playoff position.
But the Nats took two of three from the Phillies that weekend before raucous, divided crowds at RFK Stadium – they drew 2.73 million people that inaugural season and 91,751 for that series alone. How long ago was it? Ryan Zimmerman had his first major-league hit, a double, in the series opener After another win at home over Florida on Sept. 6 suddenly the team was just 1 ½ games behind the Astros for the wild card with 24 games left. Alas, it wasn’t to be.
They lost five of the next six games against the Marlins and NL East-leading Atlanta Braves to end a disappointing homestand. But even as late as Sept. 16 there was hope. After Washington extended a four-game winning streak with a victory in San Diego, it was just 2 ½ games back of Houston for the wild card with 14 games left.
But the season all but ended the next night on Sept. 17. Up 5-0 in the ninth inning and poised for a fifth straight win, Washington relievers retired two of the first three Padres batters. Game over, right? Nope. Two singles and a walk made it 5-1. Then shortstop Khalil Greene smoked a grand slam off Nats closer Chad Cordero to tie the game. Washington lost on a Ramon Hernandez homer in the 12th.
Houston won that same night and the Nats fell 3 ½ games back. They eventually finished 81-81 – a sweep by the Phillies during the final weekend at RFK cost them a winning season – and fell to last place in the NL East, eight games behind the Astros for that coveted wild-card berth.
Things are a little different this time around with the second-place Atlanta Braves coming to town for a huge series starting Monday and needing to take two-of-three to gain ground on Washington, which for the first time since 1933 controls its own destiny heading into the season’s final weeks.
“Hopefully this is the year the town of D.C. gets to see a playoff game here. I know we tried to give it to them that first year,” Cordero said at Nationals Park last month. “That first year was magical. Coming in from Montreal, being the first year playing at RFK Stadium, being in a city that hadn’t had baseball in about 30 years. And we played very well. Unfortunately, we kind of took a dive in the second half. This team, I don’t think they’re going to do that.”
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