It's showtime for the Nationals and their fans.
While the atmosphere in the stands at Nationals Park has been more tepid than the team's play on the field for the most part, all of that will change this weekend when the Philadelphia Phillies arrive for the first big division showdown of the year.
The action on the field is likely to be intense, but both cities - and a national TV audience Sunday night - will also be paying close attention to the crowd. That's because the Nationals management cranked up the intensity by declaring this to be not just any ordinary division matchup, but the "Our Park" series, when Nats fans are supposed to turn out in force to fend off the hordes of Philly supporters who have traditionally come to see their team in Washington.
Former Nationals president Stan Kasten once encouraged Philadelphians there to come on down and made tickets available to tour companies. But now, C0O Andy Feffer is tired of hearing his players booed in their own home ballpark from stands packed with Phillies fans. So he launched a plan to turn out a home crowd.
It started in February, when tickets to this series went on presale only to those with a local mailing address. Feffer added some fuel by declaring to The Washington Post that the team would not make it easy for busloads of opposing fans to unload and tailgate in front of the ballpark. Even so, at least one tour group is promising to do just that. There was even a report that the Nationals had canceled another tour group's reserved tickets. U.S. Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania turned up the heat when he questioned the campaign in a letter to Nationals owner Ted Lerner.
Since then, tickets have been on sale to everyone. Meanwhile, the team has been heavily promoting the "Our Park" series and urging season ticket holders to donate their tickets to wounded veterans, rather than put them on the secondary market. That brought the ire of posters on one Phillies message board, who fumed that they would invade NatsTown despite the effort.
The results are still to be seen. As of Thursday night, there were plenty of tickets available for all three games. On top of that, the turnout this week, when Bryce Harper made his Nationals Park debut, was less than stirring. Fewer than 23,000 fans turned out for that event Tuesday, a far cry from the near-capacity crowd that witnessed Stephen Strasburg's first game in 2010. Attendance on each of the past two nights has been fewer than 20,000.
So now with Strasburg on the mound, and a resurgent Phillies team in town, what will be the outcome? Will the stands be packed with Nats fans taking back their park, or Phillies fans trying to show them up? The guess here is that there will be a healthy mix of both, perhaps the next stage in a budding rivalry that can be good for baseball and both teams. Let's hope everyone is well-behaved.
Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.