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Nats enjoying attendance spike

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Nats enjoying attendance spike

More than one player in the Nationals' clubhouse following last night's win noted the energy emanating from the stands as the home team mounted its rally from four runs down in the bottom of the seventh.

"We had a great crowd out there tonight," Bryce Harper said. "That really propped everybody up to get going."

Perhaps it was the lack of loud music and scoreboard-encouraged chants, a byproduct of Turn Back the Clock Night. Or perhaps it was simply the growing excitement over the National League's best team through this season's first half.

This much is certain: Fans are pouring into Nationals Park in numbers not seen since the ballpark opened four years ago, and not seen at all in these parts since baseball's first season back in the District.

Through 37 home games, the Nationals' average attendance is 29,865. That currently ranks 15th out of 30 big-league clubs, and that ranking is only going to continue to rise as the rest of this season plays out.

Attendance is up 38 percent from this point last year, the second-highest increase in baseball. Only the Marlins (who moved into a new ballpark) have enjoyed a higher attendance bump (65 percent).

Perhaps most impressive about the Nationals' increase is that most of it has come over the last six weeks, as more and more fans have bought into this club's ascension to the top of the NL East.

Average attendance through the season's first 20 home games was 25,384. Average attendance over the last 17 home games (beginning with the May 18-20 series against the Orioles) has been 36,744.

Nationals Park hasn't hosted a crowd with fewer than 25,000 fans since May 15, when only 23,902 turned out for a Tuesday matinee against the Padres.

The way things are going, don't look for any more crowds under the 25,000 mark. You probably won't see many crowds under 30,000, either.

In addition to the home team's lure, nearly every remaining opponent on the home schedule is a popular draw on its own. The Cardinals, Cubs and Dodgers still haven't made their lone trips to the District this season. The Phillies, Braves and Mets all make two more visits to town.

Even the less-popular opponents -- the Rockies, Brewers and Marlins -- all come to D.C. only for weekend series, which tend to draw better regardless of any other factors.

At this point, it seems a safe bet that the Nationals will wind up with their best attendance in five seasons on South Capitol Street, besting the 2008 high of 2.32 million. And they might just outdraw the inaugural 2005 club's total of 2.73 million, which was boosted not only by a season-ticket base of more than 20,000 but also RFK Stadium's capacity of 45,016 (about 4,000 more than Nationals Park holds).

In other words, expect the scene that played out during last night's rally -- a large and boisterous crowd willing its home club to victory -- to become a regular occurrence.

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With Melancon in store, what do Nats do with Papelbon?

With Melancon in store, what do Nats do with Papelbon?

For the Nationals to bring in Jonathan Papelbon last July in a trade with the Phillies, he had to first waive the no-trade clause in his contract. He accepted the move to leave Philadelphia with the understanding he would be the closer in Washington. Drew Storen was moved to the eighth inning and, for a variety of reasons, the trade blew up in the Nationals' faces.

Now they have done the same to Papelbon. They traded for All-Star closer Mark Melancon on Saturday in order to solidify the ninth inning and Papelbon has been replaced.

The question now becomes not only what the Nats do with their embattled reliever, but also how he reacts. As evidenced by his comments last July right after he was traded to the Nationals, being a closer means a lot to him:

''For me I'm getting up there on the all-time closing list and that's important to me. When Theo (Epstein) had me as a young kid in Boston and he wanted to start to me and I said, `No, I'm a closer, that's what I want to be, and that's who I am.' This is what I envisioned. I envisioned chasing Mariano. I've told Mariano that at many All-Star games, `I'm coming after you.' So that's part of it," Papelbon said.

''Ego may be a part of it or whatever you want to say, but for me it's a path that I started 11 years ago and now I'm trying to do everything I can to continue that and win championships as a closer."

Until Papelbon speaks on the subject himself, there's no reason to believe he won't accept the demotion. And truthfully, there are plenty of reasons why he shouldn't have a problem with it.

For one, it is just for a few months. He is an impending free agent and will be able to seek a closer role with another team. If Papelbon turns his season around and becomes an effective setup man or seventh inning guy, he could be paid handsomely this winter.

Papelbon does also kind of owe the Nationals one, doesn't he? For all they put up with last year with the Bryce Harper incident and the suspension and contract grievance that followed, the Nationals have treated Papelbon much better than many teams would if presented the same circumstances. They brought him back this season as a reclamation project and until Saturday had shown plenty of patience with his actions both on and off the field.

Exactly how they will use Papelbon is unclear. Whether the Nats trust Papelbon more than other options like Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen and Sammy Solis is hard to tell. And whatever their plans are, the Nats may not outline them publicly, as manager Dusty Baker has been reluctant to discuss specific bullpen roles this season. 

A Papelbon-Melancon combination doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but the potential is there for a lethal eighth and ninth inning duo, if they choose to go that route. Both would bring experience and toughness to the pennant race and beyond.

Papelbon still provides value and the Nats can very much still use him. What they do and how he feels about it, though, are real questions at this point.

[RELATED: Nats may have gotten a steal with Melancon]

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Nats pull off impressive trade to land closer Melancon from Pirates

Nats pull off impressive trade to land closer Melancon from Pirates

The Nationals addressed their most pressing need in a big way on Saturday and they didn't have to give up one of their top prospects to make it happen.

The Nats acquired All-Star closer Mark Melancon from the Pittsburgh Pirates for lefty reliever Felipe Rivero and prospect Taylor Hearn, CSN Mid-Atlantic has confirmed. FOX Sports was first to break the news.

Melancon, 31, joins the Nationals for the remainder of this season as an upcoming free agent. The right-hander holds a 1.51 ERA and has 30 saves in 33 chances. 

Melancon has been an excellent closer for years with a 1.80 ERA and 130 saves since he joined the Pirates before the 2013 season. Three times during that stretch he made the NL All-Star team and he finished eighth in Cy Young voting in 2015.

Melancon will close for the Nationals, which begs the question of what to do with Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon joined the Nats last summer with the understanding he would be their closer and has spoken before about his quest to challenge Mariano Rivera's all-time saves record. Regardless of how Papelbon reacts, the Nationals have found a better option for the ninth inning in Melancon.

Melancon has three years of postseason experience, as well. He has appeared in six playoff games with four earned runs across 5 2/3 total innings allowed.

Rivero, 25, leaves for the Pirates with a 4.53 ERA in 47 appearances this season. He is under team control through 2021. Rivero throws 100 miles per hour and has flashed potential through his two years in Washington, but remains a raw talent.

Hearn was a fifth round pick out of Oklahoma Baptist in 2015. He posted a 3.18 ERA in eight games at Single-A Hagerstown this season.

Both Rivero and Hearn are intriguing young pitchers, but overall this trade looks like a steal for the Nationals, especially considering what the Cubs gave up for Aroldis Chapman and what the Yankees have reportedly been asking for with Andrew Miller.

The Nats did not have to part with any of their top prospects to land Melancon, who leaves a Pirates team that is only three games out of a playoff spot. That last detail could be something to keep in mind down the stretch of this season.

Why did the Pirates let Melancon go? It is not often you see a team in their position trade their lockdown closer and strengthen another team in their league at the same time. It's a strange decision, but the Nats will take it.

[RELATED: Scherzer, Werth shine in Nats' thrilling win at Giants]

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Report: Nats make deadline trade for All-Star closer Melancon

Report: Nats make deadline trade for All-Star closer Melancon

The Nationals have found their new closer.

According to a report by FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal, the Nats agreed on a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates on Friday afternoon for All-Star closer Mark Melancon.

The Nats sent lefty reliever Felipe Rivero to Pittsburgh along with prospect Taylor Hearn, another lefty.

Melancon has a 1.51 ERA and 30 saves this season. He saved 51 games last year and finished eighth in NL Cy Young voting.

More to come...

[RELATED: Scherzer, Werth shine in Nats' thrilling win at Giants]

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