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Minus playoffs, Nats' 1st season is still a plus


WASHINGTON -- Right now, the Washington Nationals are still a little bruised. The reality of falling short of the playoffs - of two blown leads in San Diego a few weeks ago that may have ended their season - still feels raw.

But with the passage of time, the memory of the just-ended season will crystallize, and they will come to appreciate how much they accomplished in the team's first season in Washington.

They will realize that they surpassed expectations on the field - winning a surprising 50 games in the season's first half - and eclipsed their attendance goal of drawing more than 2.5 million home fans.

"We're disappointed we're not going to be in the playoffs, but we did a lot more than anybody would have thought we would have been able to do," said reliever Chad Cordero, who made his first All-Star Game. His end-of-game theatrics - punching his glove at his heart and pirouetting for the home fans - became a signature in a first half when the club built a 5 1/2 -game lead in the National League East.

The team's unexpected early success - they had been 67-95 during their last season in Montreal - created a buzz among local fans who had begun the year content just to have baseball back in the city after a 33-season drought. Interest pushed average attendance past 33,000 and vaulted the franchise into baseball's elite in sales of caps and other merchandise. Fans seemed to appreciate that the club's success came despite a comparatively modest payroll of less than $50 million.

"I began to drive around and see people wearing a Jose Guillen T-shirt or a Cristian Guzman T-shirt, and that's pretty exciting," Cordero said. "We got to do something that not a lot of guys got a chance to do - to say you're a part of the first Washington Nationals team."

The early buzz likely intensified interest among eight potential ownership groups vying to purchase the club from Major League Baseball. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said last week that an announcement on a buyer could come during the playoffs. "We're trying to move as fast as possible," Selig said.

On the field, injuries and one-run losses caused the Nationals to slip in the second half. After playing without the weight of expectations, the team seemed to tighten up as if it suddenly began contemplating what was at stake.

"The bar was set real high in the second half," said relief pitcher Gary Majewski. "Instead of being relaxed, we just put a little too much pressure on ourselves. And guys were trying to do more because some other guys were injured."

Particularly damaging were injuries to first baseman Nick Johnson, second baseman Jose Vidro and pitcher Tony Armas.

Still, the Nationals were in the playoff race when they arrived in San Diego for a three-game series Sept. 16.

"We had just swept the Mets, and we went to San Diego and took the first one and lost two heartbreakers," catcher Brian Schneider said. "That was real big."

In the first loss, Khalil Greene hit a grand slam off Cordero with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to send the contest into extra innings. Washington blew a late lead the next night, too, and left town 4 1/2 games out of the wild-card race with a dozen to play.

Schneider said those losses still smart. But he said he'll also remember the 10-game winning streak in June and how he caught the honorary first pitch at RFK Stadium in April from President Bush, who became the first president since Richard Nixon in 1969 to toss a ceremonial first ball in the nation's capital.

The RFK opener attracted a sellout crowd. By early May, the club had sold 2.1 million tickets for the season and said it aimed to sell 400,000 more - a goal it easily surpassed, finishing with 2.7 million.

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