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Why didn't the Nats draw better last night?

Why didn't the Nats draw better last night?

It was impossible not to notice as the best-in-baseball Nationals took the field at 7:05 p.m. last night to face the Cubs. As the ballpark PA announcer implored the crowd to greet "your Washington Nationals," the ensuing roar might not have been loud enough to wake a sleeping infant.

Huge swaths of the lower deck were empty. You could count the number of fans in many upper deck sections on two hands. A few were completely vacant.

Official paid attendance: 17,648, the fourth-smallest crowd of the season on South Capitol Street and the smallest since May 2.

Where'd everybody go?

Theories immediately were proposed. It had been the first day of school in Northern Virginia, where the majority of Nationals fans live. The muggy weather was a turn-off. Tons of locals had been out of town during the holiday weekend. Tons more had migrated to Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention.

All of those likely played a role in the disappointingly small gathering, but it turns out this problem wasn't restricted to Washington.

Did you know there were seven games around Major League Baseball last night that drew smaller crowds? Yep, the Braves (16,686), White Sox (15,698), Blue Jays (13,556), Pirates (12,785), Mariners (12,754), Royals (12,462) and Athletics (11,688) all played in front of fewer fans.

And two other playoff contenders -- the Reds (17,806) and Rays (17,652) -- drew nearly identical crowds as the Nationals.

Average attendance across baseball last night: 21,042. That's down 33 percent from the overall season average.

Apparently the day after Labor Day is a tough sell just about everywhere.

Only five clubs drew significantly more fans than the Nationals did: the Giants (41,038), Dodgers (40,619), Cardinals (34,108), Tigers (27,729) and Marlins (23,403). In all cases, those crowds were below average, with Detroit down 10,000 fans from its season norm.

None of that prevented fans, media and other interested parties around the country from hurling insults the Nationals' way and questioning whether D.C. really will support a winning baseball team. Clearly many of those people haven't been paying attention.

Attendance at Nationals Park remains up 27 percent from this point last season. Only the Marlins (who moved out of an awful football stadium into a new baseball-only park) have enjoyed a larger increase from 2011 to 2012.

With an average attendance just a tick under 30,000, the Nationals rank 14th out of 30 major-league clubs, ahead of the playoff-contending Reds, Braves, Pirates, Orioles, White Sox, Athletics and Rays.

So why was last night's crowd (and several other during this homestand) so small? The answer is simple: The Nationals still have a small season-ticket base.

Team officials don't give out exact numbers, but it's believed the Nationals have sold the equivalent of about 12,000 full-season ticket packages. We know for certain that number is no greater than 14,520 (the smallest crowd of the season to date).

When your base is that small, you've got to sell roughly 30,000 single-game seats every single night to fill the place up. That may happen a handful of times over the course of a season -- on summer weekends and against high-drawing opponents -- but on the day after Labor Day? Not likely.

Baseball is a slow-moving sport in so many ways, and attendance leads the list. Teams usually see a huge spike in crowds the year after they reach the playoffs. Why? Because they sell a whole lot more season-ticket packages over the winter.

There's every reason to believe the Nationals will experience such a spike in 2013 and will surpass their 2012 total attendance (even if they don't win as many games).

Until then, they'll just have to hope the crowds start to pick up again as the regular-season draws to a close. When the time comes for them to clinch the city's first postseason berth in 79 years, the place should be full.

When they actually do host October baseball for the first time in three generations, the place will be full. (If nothing else, Washington has proven itself to be a big "event" town, and there will be no bigger event in town come October than playoff baseball.)

That doesn't make last night's paltry crowd any less disappointing. But perhaps it will help convince the doubters out there about D.C.'s ability to support a winning ballclub.

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Gonzalez on earning career win No. 100 : 'I’m just happy it came'

Gonzalez on earning career win No. 100 : 'I’m just happy it came'

Gio Gonzalez isn’t the type to harp on his accomplishments. After quality outings, he typically deflects praise to his Nationals teammates in postgame interviews when asked to describe his personal performance.

But as much as he tends to downplay, earning his career 100th win in Friday's victory over the Colorado Rockies clearly meant something to him. 

“I’m just happy it came,” Gonzalez said. “I finally showed up and I’m happy I did it here with this organization. Oakland gave me an opportunity and Washington helped me continue that opportunity and I couldn’t be happier to do it with these colors and represent the Washington Nationals.”

The feat came after two no-decisions in his previous two starts, so the third time proved to be the charm. After the game, he had a gathering of family and friends waiting outside the Nats’ clubhouse to congratulate him, some holding gold “100” balloons and others wearing hats featuring the oft-used Twitter emoji of the same number.

“I'm sure it was [on his mind],” manager Dusty Baker said. “…He didn’t want to come out of this game. He was going to get it eventually and we needed it.”

The 30-year-old left hander accomplished the milestone thanks to six innings of two-run ball on just 85 pitches against the hard-hitting Rockies lineup. Gonzalez displayed a lot of what his skipper wanted to see from him: a low pitch count, avoiding the big inning and, as he did later in the game, deliver shutdown frames immediately after the Nats offense scores.

“He threw great tonight," added Bryce Harper. Kept a very good Rockies lineup off balance and did what he needed to do. Stuck with his approach and threw like Gio knows how. Huge for him, that hundredth win. Couldn't be happier for him and his family.”

Historic achievement aside, Gonzalez has quietly turned his season around after a rough patch. In his last nine outings, he’s 5-1 with a 3.20 ERA over 50 2/3 innings. His resurgence couldn’t have come at a better time, as he’s charged with stabilizing the back-end of a rotation that’s in flux due to injuries to Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross.

“That's the key to his success,” Baker said. “Not getting runners on base or not walking people and he had a very good game tonight, excellent game. His last couple games, few games have been good. I'm just glad we were able to get him his 100th victory.”

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Nats ride Gonzalez, bats to 8-5 victory over the Rockies

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USA TODAY Sports

Nats ride Gonzalez, bats to 8-5 victory over the Rockies

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 8-5 win over the Colorado Rockies on Friday night at Nationals Park.

How it happened: The Nationals have quickly gotten the sour taste of their recent four-game skid out of their mouths.

Thanks to a resurgent offense and a quality start by Gio Gonzalez, Washington got back on track with Friday’s 8-2 win over the Rockies, the Nats’ second win in as many days.

True to form, the power-laden lineup didn’t take long to strike. Jayson Werth launched a solo home run, his second in as many days and his 18th of the season, to put Washington up 1-0 in the first inning, and scored again in the third on an RBI groundout by Daniel Murphy.

With the game tied 2-2 in the fourth inning, the Nats wouldn’t create breathing room until the middle innings. The Nats took a lead they wouldn’t surrender when they scored two runs on a Jose Lobaton fielder’s choice in the fourth inning, followed by a Murphy solo home run in the fifth to make it 4-2.

From there, the game was blown open in the seventh inning thanks to a four-spot that was highlighted by an RBI double by Werth and a two-run triple by Bryce Harper that nearly left the ballpark.

The Rockies closed the gap to 8-5 on a Nick Hundley three-run home run in the ninth off Shawn Kelley, so Dusty Baker turned to Mark Melancon to notch the final out and secure the victory.  

What it means: The Nats have won back to back games and have raised their record to 75-53. Pending the result of the Miami Marlins game, Washington could be up nine games in the NL East by the end of the night.

Gonzalez notches win No. 100: The lefty starter wasn’t dominant by any means, but he did what Baker wanted him to do: keep his pitch count down and avoid the big inning. Gonzalez allowed two earned runs on four hits over six innings and 85 pitches, and limited the damage every time the Rockies were threatening. He could have easily gone deeper in the game, but Baker opted to pinch hit for him when the Nats had two on and two out in the bottom of the sixth. Regardless, the performance was good enough to earn Gonzalez the 100th victory of his career. 

Murphy’s milestone: With his 25th home run of the season, a fifth-inning solo shot, Murphy notched his 500th career RBI. It’s a remarkable achievement considering that he currently has 98 RBI on the season, which means roughly a fifth of the runs he’s driven in have come in 2016.

Bryce back? Don’t look now, but Harper is looking very much like the reigning NL MVP these days. He added two more extra-base hits Friday night, including his first triple of the season, and is now hitting an even .400 since his return from a neck injury. His season average has suddenly risen to .254, and with the way he’s going, could get to .260 by the end of the weekend.

Up next: The middle game of this three-game set will take place Saturday afternoon at 1:05 p.m. as the Nats send A.J. Cole (0-1, 5.14 ERA) to oppose Jorge De La Rosa (8-7, 5.07 ERA).

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Frank Howard on Ring of Honor, Bryce Harper and a potential Nats World Series

Frank Howard on Ring of Honor, Bryce Harper and a potential Nats World Series

Friday night wasn't the first time the Nationals paid tribute to Senators slugger Frank Howard. After all, it’s his likeness that is featured in one of the few statues outside of Nats Park. 

But it wasn't until a recent change in the team’s Ring of Honor criteria — which now allows for any pre-Nats/Expos D.C. great to be inducted — that Howard became eligible for recognition by the franchise.  

 “It’s a real thrill for me, it really is,” said Howard, 80, before Friday’s game against the Colorado Rockies. “It’s nice when somebody says ‘Welcome to the Ring of Honor.’”

For many longtime D.C. sports fans, Howard is one of the few vestiges of the city’s last baseball team before a 34-year gap without the game. He had his best years as a member of the Senators from 1965 to 1971, hitting 237 home runs — the most any player representing D.C. has ever hit.

On Friday, Howard didn’t delve too much into his past, instead praising the current state of D.C.’s baseball team.

“They’re not a young organization anymore,” Howard said of the Nats. “They wanted to create their own image and they should. They’ve done a beautiful job, from top to bottom.”

Howard’s impact on the game went beyond the nation’s capital. Nats manager Dusty Baker said that when he was growing up, his brother would emulate Howard, who began his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“As a kid, his name was big Frank Howard, or ‘Hondo.’,” Baker recalled. “We’re playing games in the back yard and my brother was Frank Howard, and I was Tommy Davis.”

Baker would get to meet and interact with Howard over the years, calling him “the most gentle giant of a man I know.” Howard returned the favor with a few compliments of his own.  

“Dusty Baker is a quality big league player, quality big league manager,” he said. "Knows the game from A to Z and back to Z to A. He’s been very successful.”

And of course, talking to any D.C. baseball great means getting their opinion on the reigning NL MVP, Bryce Harper.

“He haven’t even begun to scratch the surface,” Howard said of the 23-year-old right fielder. “His next 10 years should be dynamite years.”

As great as Howard was for the Senators, the teams he played for in D.C. were rarely considered World Series contenders. This Nats club, on the other hand, represents a perennial threat to win it all, something Howard hopes the team will make good on someday. 

“I think it’d be great for the area,” he said. “We’ve got great fans here, and to give them a world championship ball club would be a real thrill.”