It was barely 10 a.m. when 15-year-old Eddie Nevins and his younger brother, 13-year-old Daniel, walked down Half Street SE toward Nationals Park from the Navy Yard Metro station. District fireman were hanging a huge U.S. flag between two raised fire truck ladders outside the center-field gate, raised above an equally large "October Natitude" sticker on the street. There were more than three hours to go before the first pitch between the Nationals and the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 3 of their National League Division Series.

Arriving early seemed fitting. After all, the D.C. area had waited since 1933 for the return of playoff baseball.

(View photo galleries with images from the game or the scene at Nationals Park)

"We weren't having a test or anything," Eddie Nevins said when asked how the two got permission to skip school in Fairfax County.

Said Daniel Nevins: "I really wanted to go badly. I was asking my mom for like two months."

While the Nevins brothers have grown up as Nationals fans, their attachment to D.C. baseball runs much deeper. Their grandfather proposed to their grandmother at a Senators game.

That kind of emotional connection was evident as the crowds grew coming out of the Metro. The slow-moving procession didn't diminish the enthusiasm for a team that fans had seen turn the corner late last season but still didn't expect to be in the playoffs this year. Some admitted they remained apprehensive down the stretch during the regular season.

"It's incredible," said Trish Redmond, a Springfield native and season-ticket holder since baseball returned to Washington in 2005. "Our old motto used to be, 'Bad baseball is better than no baseball.' Especially for the people in D.C. who went through losing a team and gaining a team and losing a team, I'm thrilled for that. This is cool."

The sellout crowd of 45,017 -- the largest crowd in Nationals Park history -- was all but entirely in place by the time former manager Frank Robinson, who was in charge of the team for its final three seasons in Montreal and first two in the District in 2005 and 2006, stepped to the mound for the ceremonial first pitch. Greeted with an enormous ovation, he wore his old No. 20 jersey, which shortstop Ian Desmond has since commandeered in his honor.

"The fans have always been nice since we got back here, and that was one of the reasons it was so nice being here, playing here and managing here," Robinson said. "They deserve it, what's happening here today. ... It came a little quicker than I thought it would."

Salutes for third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, drafted by the Nationals in 2005, and inactive pitcher Stephen Strasburg were followed by a flyover by the 113th Wing of the D.C. Air National Guard. Sunny weather and a crisp 64-degree temperature greeted the first pitch.

"I never thought during my lifetime -- the Senators were always a mediocre to a cellar dweller," said Nationals fan Preston Godfrey, from Issue, Md. "For this day to arrive, it's a glorious day."

At least it was. The Nationals lost 8-0, and much of the crowd filed out early.