As Orioles struggle, Nationals' hopes are rising

'I've never had a player with this much attention,' Nats president Stan Kasten says of Stephen Strasburg

May 20, 2010|By Jeff Barker, The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON —

— Washington Nationals president Stan Kasten leans over his hand-held computer for an inning-by-inning update on Stephen Strasburg, the minor league pitching prodigy whose impending debut with the big club looms as one of baseball's compelling stories.

Seated in the press box, Kasten gazes down at the field, where his team is soon to defeat the New York Mets. He has surveyed the stands, which are half-empty on this chilly, midweek night but seem certain to fill up once Strasburg, consistently warm weather and more wins arrive. All appear to be coming soon.

The team the Orioles face in a three-game series beginning today is a more evolved version -- it's Nationals 2.0 -- of the club that lost 103games last season, including four of six to Baltimore.

After rebuilding the past several years, Washington has been playing .500 baseball and has the outlines of a contender. Above all, it has what all teams and their fans need -- hope.

Kasten said he has no problem envisioning the day when the overlapping Washington-Baltimore baseball markets are thriving simultaneously. "The [combined] market is easily capable of getting 3 million at each ballpark," he said.

Both clubs reported fewer than 2 million in home attendance last season, and the Orioles have struggled to open the season. As recently as 2005 -- when baseball returned to Washington -- the clubs each drew more than 2.6 million.

Hope at Nationals Park has come in the form of improvement in almost every area on a club that ranked among baseball's worst last season in pitching and defense. It has come from youngsters such as Drew Storen -- who picked up his first career relief win against the Mets on Wednesday night -- and Strasburg, 21, who is certain to be greeted next month with a sellout crowd and Hall of Fame expectations.

Like concert-goers waiting for a rock band to take the stage, Nationals fans giddily anticipate the arrival of the studious, humble Strasburg, who has not allowed a run in 181/3 innings for Triple-A Syracuse and is expected to be called up early next month.

"I will tell you I don't know the date [of Strasburg's debut]," Kasten said.

Speculation centers on June 4 -- the Friday-night opening of a home series against the Cincinnati Reds.

"I've never had a player with this much attention," Kasten said. "What's most important is that we develop him properly."

In the meantime, the Nats are enjoying being prime news in a city long enraptured by the NFL's Redskins.

"This [Nationals Park] is going to be the place to be," said Hank Allen, a former Washington Senators player in the late 1960s who settled in the area. "I just hope the real fans can still come to the ballpark."

Simply drafting and signing Strasburg, the top pick in the 2009 draft, has been a promotional boon for the team. "The best thing for marketing has been this buildup -- the news stories every fifth day [when Strasburg pitches]," Kasten said. "The anticipation has been serendipitous."

Before the team's relocation here, the Orioles organization had expressed doubts whether Washington-Baltimore could support two clubs. The Nats and Orioles have barely established a rivalry. But, like jealous siblings, each team's fans tend to compare one club's progress to the other's.

"If you look at the message boards, a lot of Orioles fans are writing, 'This is terrible. We're worse than the Nats,'" MASN analyst Phil Wood said.

"Remember, the Nats were 33-37 last season in their last 70 games. You're kind of seeing a continuation of that this year," Wood said. The Orioles lost 40 of their last 60games "and you're seeing a continuation of that, too."

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sunjeffbarker

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