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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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Bryce Harper launches mammoth home run into third deck at National Park

Bryce Harper launches mammoth home run into third deck at National Park

Bryce Harper had been in a little bit of a slump heading into Friday's game against the Padres, but in the seventh inning, he got back to what he does best. 

With a full count and a runner aboard, Harper launched an absolute bomb that landed in the third deck down the right field line at Nationals Park. That means a new seat will be painted red where the ball landed. 

Check out the blast for yourself: 

It was the 15th homer of the year for Harper, which leads the National League. 

More Nationals: Scherzer dominates Padres with 13-strikeout game

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Max Scherzer absolutely dominates Padres, piles up 13 strikeouts

Max Scherzer absolutely dominates Padres, piles up 13 strikeouts

WASHINGTON -- Max Scherzer allowed three hits over 8 2/3 innings, Bryce Harper and Michael A. Taylor hit two-run homers and the Washington Nationals defeated the San Diego Padres 5-1 on Friday night.

Trea Turner added a solo homer and a double for Washington.

Scherzer (5-3) struck out a season-high 13. He allowed a single to Austin Hodges in the second, Ryan Schimpf's solo homer in the fourth and Allen Cordoba's single in the ninth, throwing 108 pitches, 81 for strikes

Scherzer, who tossed a season-low five innings in a loss to Atlanta last time out, retired 14 straight before Cordoba's single. After a walk to Yangervis Solarte, acting manager Chris Speier visited the mound, but he momentarily left Scherzer in.

However, after a strikeout and a hit batter, Speier called on Koda Glover who struck out pinch-hitter Hunter Renfroe to pick up his fourth save.

With Washington leading 3-1 in the seventh, Harper hit a towering shot into the third deck off reliever Kirby Yates, his 15th of the season.

After Schimpf's homer had tied it 1-1, Taylor quickly regained the lead for Washington when he homered with Matt Wieters aboard in the bottom of the inning.

Since taking over for injured center fielder Adam Lind on April 29, Taylor is hitting .307 (27 for 88) with five doubles, three triples, three homers and 10 RBIs.

San Diego starter Luis Perdomo (0-2) allowed three runs and six hits over six innings. He struck out six and walked two.

In the bottom of the first, Turner sent a 2-1 pitch over the wall in center field the Nationals' first leadoff homer of the season. It was the third of Turner's career.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Padres: OF Manuel Margot, who left Wednesday's game with right calf soreness, was in a walking boot. Manager Andy Green said the boot is a precaution for now. "Becoming increasingly likely that it's a DL stint, but he's active tonight," Green said. . RHP Carter Capps (Tommy John surgery) threw on the side Friday. "There's talk of facing hitters again on Monday or Tuesday," Green said.

Nationals: An MRI on OF Chris Heisey confirmed he has a ruptured right biceps tendon. However, he will attempt to rehab the injury without surgery and could return in a relatively short time. Heisey was on the field during batting practice, shagging fly balls in the outfield.

INSPEIERED LEADERSHIP

With manager Dusty Baker away this weekend to attend his son Darren's high school graduation in California, bench coach Speier is the acting manager. Asked before the game about Ryan Zimmerman and Daniel Murphy being out the lineup, Speier deadpanned: "Actually, Zimmerman had a whiffle ball accident with his daughter, sprained his right wrist and Murph's back is blown out." He quickly added: "Just a day off."

UP NEXT

Padres: LHP Clayton Richards (3-5, 4.31) is 1-3 in 10 career appearances, six starts, against the Nationals with a 3.56 ERA

Nationals: RHP Stephen Strasburg (5-1, 3.28) faces his hometown team for the seventh time in his career. He is 5-1 with a 3.50 ERA against San Diego.