With the Washington Nationals pursuing their first winning season since the franchise moved to the District of Columbia from Montreal following the 2004 season, yet buried in the National League playoff races, the biggest lure remaining for long-suffering fans is the possibility of seeing one-time phenom Stephen Strasburg pitch at Nationals Park this season.
Strasburg, who posted a 2.91 ERA, struck out 92 batters in 68 innings and had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 5.4 last year in a seminal rookie season that was cut short when he underwent Tommy John surgery in late August, has recovered quickly and made his first minor league rehab start Sunday, August 7, when he tossed 1 2/3 innings and struck out four batters for Single-A Hagerstown. Barring setbacks, Strasburg should make a handful of starts for the Nationals in September, and provide a late-season boost to a team that is once again lagging at the gate.
Strasburg’s starts last season was the modern equivalent of Fernandomania — must-see viewing whether the Nationals were at home or on the road. The Nationals drew an average of 33,485 fans per game to Strasburg’s seven home starts last year, an increase of more than 11,000 over their average of 22,569. Another indicator of the impact Strasburg had on the Nationals’ bottom line: Their average attendance in the 74 games he didn’t start was 21,537.
That said, the buzz about Strasburg did wear off a bit as the summer went on thanks to a combination of Strasburg’s first injury of the season, the Nationals’ fade in the NL East and the fact he simply could not build upon the legend he created in his major league debut, when he struck out 14 and walked none in seven innings at Nationals Park June 8. Strasburg made two starts at Nationals Park after returning from a sore shoulder in early August and pitched to just 25,939 and 21,965 fans, respectively, on August 10 and August 15.
The Nationals won’t be in the race when Strasburg returns, but his presence following a rapid return to the mound (the typical Tommy John recovery lasts for 12 to 18 months) should be enough to build a bit of a buzz in the capital city. If last year is any indication, he might also entice fans to see him on the road, as well.
Strasburg’s first four road starts last year were at Cleveland, Florida, Atlanta and Cincinnati. The Indians played to 32,876 fans on June 13, an increase of more than 15,000 fans from their season average of 17,836. The Braves (a crowd of 42,889 on June 28, up from an average of 31,352) and Reds (a crowd of 37,869 on July 21, up from an average of 24,896) each welcomed more than 10,000 additional fans through the gates for Strasburg’s appearance while the Marlins (a crowd of 27,037 on July 16, up from an average of 17,738) fell just shy of a five-figure increase.
That’s good news for the New York Mets and Florida Marlins, each of whom host the Nationals in September. The Mets have endured the fifth-biggest decrease in attendance (2,663 per game, through August 7) while the Marlins rank dead last with an average crowd of 18,012 per game. The Nationals will also visit the Philadelphia Phillies, who are once again playing to capacity crowds nightly at Citizens Bank Park. Strasburg made the final start of his rookie season in Philadelphia last August 21, when 45,266 fans (an increase of 230 over the average Phillies crowd) saw him depart with his elbow injury after 4 1/3 innings.