Sellout crowd awaits Nationals for home opener
The Washington Nationals sold out a total of two home games last season - and both of those were against the Philadelphia Phillies, who always bring along thousands of their fans to the nation's capital.
As of Thursday, Washington will be halfway to that total in 2012, because standing-room-only spots were all that were available for the sold-out home opener against the Cincinnati Reds.
''It's way more fun to play in stadium packed with your fans than no fans or, even worse, fans from another town,'' Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth said. ''I think as the team continues to win and does the things to bring the fans to the ballpark - which is, essentially, winning - I think we'll have a bigger following and a better atmosphere and the stadium will be a place people come to enjoy a game of baseball.''
According to chief operating officer Andy Feffer, season-ticket sales are up ''significantly'' over last year, to their highest point since 2008, the team's first season at Nationals Park. He declined to discuss any specific numbers, citing club policy.
''Our fans have acknowledged what's going on here with a very young team that's real, that's competitive and that they know for the first time really is going to be very good. ... The expectations have shifted dramatically,'' Feffer said.
''We are the trendy pick and the trendy team within Major League Baseball this year,'' Feffer added.
Last season, the Nationals averaged fewer than 25,000 fans per game, ranking 14th in the 16-team National League.
''I'm not a predictor of attendance ... but I will tell you the excitement, the enthusiasm in the marketplace is much different than it ever has been before,'' Feffer said.
He attributes that spike to the team being ready now, as he put it, to ''compete year-in and year-out.''
''It's been pretty evident in the past that if we don't win, they don't come out,'' shortstop Ian Desmond said. ''We've got to win; we've got to play well.''
The Nationals head to D.C. tied for first place in the NL East with a 4-2 record, and they'll send Gio Gonzalez to the mound to face the Cincinnati Reds (3-3) and Mat Latos on Thursday. It's a matchup between starting pitchers who are new to their clubs and fared rather poorly in their debuts.
Gonzalez, who was with the Oakland A's in 2011, gave up four runs in 3 2-3 innings before Washington came back to beat the Chicago Cubs 7-4.
Latos, acquired from the San Diego Padres, allowed four runs in 4 2-3 innings in Cincinnati's 8-3 loss to the Florida Marlins.
The pitcher and his new team might take hope from this: In four career starts against Washington, Latos is 3-1 with a 2.19 ERA, including 2-0 with a 1.42 ERA at Nationals Park.
These Nationals, as Feffer would point out, are supposed to be a different club from the one that has yet to finish a season with more wins than losses since moving to Washington from Montreal before the 2005 season. They came close in 2011, going 80-81 to finish in third place in the NL East. Although the offense - which made zero significant additions in the offseason and is missing injured cleanup hitter Michael Morse - is struggling so far, the pitching has been mostly as good as advertised.
''We know that we've made strides in the right direction,'' Desmond said. ''We're excited to get home and show our fans what we're going to put out there this year.''
AP Sports Writer Howie Rumberg in New York, and freelancer Mark Schmetzer in Cincinnati contributed to this report.
Howard Fendrich can be reached at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich