Rarely does life inflate our dreams beyond our own recognition, then suddenly grant them. That's not how it works on this planet. But, for the last two weeks, that's what Nationals fans have experienced. Something entirely different is definitely up.

All of a sudden the Nats' story is getting much too substantial for pretty prose about an orphan team embraced by an abandoned city, or bouncing bleachers that inspire luck-laced, come-from-behind, one-run wins. Spring romance is nice. Summer love is better. But a Washington team in an autumn battle for the playoffs is hard-boiled, high-pressure baseball, not poetry. The Nats better watch out, because if they don't start losing soon, they're going to find themselves in a pennant race in September.

Just to get your attention, with 98 games left, how many games do the Nats have left against teams with better records than theirs?

Hint: Your guess won't be close. Because the answer is five. That's "5." Spelled f-i-v-e.

There's the next two games against the Angels, who moved ahead of the Nats just last night. In late August, there's a three-game series at RFK against the Cardinals. That's it. Every other future foe has a worse record than 37-27. That's how high the Nats have suddenly climbed and how few great teams baseball now has.

The Nats have tons of games left against teams over .500, including six this week. But that "5" underlines one central fact. Aside from St. Louis and (conceivably) the White Sox, baseball doesn't have any powerhouses. The sport has many contending teams capable of winning more games than they lose -- but not a lot more. And Washington, after its 12-1 homestand, is clearly one of them.

Washington is going to have to get used to that peculiar word, "contender," at least for a while. After all, on Sunday night, it was the Nationals, not the Orioles, who had the better record.

For contenders, especially underdogs such as the Nats, seasons turn on three kinds of pivot points. First, can you minimize losing streaks? Last month, the Nats proved that they could. On May 29th, they were 1-7 on a road trip, had 11 men on the DL and faced eight games against St. Louis, Atlanta and Florida. They could've gone down the tube. Instead, they went 7-1.

Second, can you maximize winning streaks? The Nats just proved they can do that that, too. Last week, they had their first make-hay opportunity of the season -- six straight games at home against losers. They won all six to extend their run to 13-1, stunning the sport. They even took the breath from Manager Frank Robinson who said, "No one could have foreseen this."

Now, the Nationals will face the third type of test. Can you cope with the emotional letdown when a euphoric winning streak inevitably ends and your play (and luck) cools off? Do you consolidate your gains with a week or two of dogged, mundane play that's not too far from .500? Or do you plunge back into a losing streak that undoes much of the good work?

We'll soon see. The Nats aren't going to waltz through nine games in Anaheim, Texas and Pittsburgh. Yet those games now carry extra weight -- because Jose Vidro is almost back.

The team's best player, to his own surprise, was told Sunday by doctors that he will likely play again in just two weeks. If Nationals fans want to hold their breath, now would be a fine time. If the Nats don't fumble badly in the dozen games before Vidro returns, the team will probably stay in the NL East or wild-card picture for a long time.

Why? In the first 24 games after Vidro's projected return, the Nats play 14 games at home and 14 games against teams with losing records -- perhaps their friendliest stretch of the season. That takes us to just one week before the trading deadline. If others fade, but the Nats don't, the team certainly has budget room to deal for a key role player or free agent "rent-a-star" or a one-last-dance Hall of Famer. It happens every July 31st. And big names move.

If the Nats want to stay out of the heat of the frying pan this fall, they better cry "Uncle" soon. Because Jim Bowden is dying for an excuse to pull the trigger, spend the cash he's horded and show the Nats' eventual owner why he should be kept.

Isn't learning baseball fun? Sure, there are 98 games left. But there are only 41 until the trading deadline, when the wheat and the chaff get separated as contenders bulk up and pretenders trim payroll. Who thought the Nats might be buyers?

Another part of Washington's baseball reeducation has just gone into the books: We've seen the necessity of major winning streaks if you want to be a contender. Such streaks are often described as "magical" or "unbelievable." Quite the contrary. That's just baseball. Get used to it. The Nats' homestand was ignited by a one-run win when Robinson managed to get the umpires to change a correctly called home run into a foul ball! And why did the Nats win their final home game, 3-2 on Sunday? Because Vinny Castilla was picked off first base. Yes, picked off. The 37-year-old somehow beat the first baseman's throw to second base by an inch to "steal" the bag. Jamey Carroll singled him home with the eventual winning run. Ergo: 10 wins in a row.

Data on winning and losing streaks rarely varies. To win 90 games you usually need two plus-10 streaks. To reach .600, you'll probably need three such streaks. And to be a truly dominant team with well over 100 wins, you'll need four streaks. For example, the Yankees won 101 games last year, built on streaks of 20-4, 16-2 and 10-1. In other games: 55-54.

Though streaks sometimes seem a bit mystical, there's always a basic baseball reason. The Nats have perplexed many because they are last in baseball in homers and next-to-last in runs per game. Must be a fluke? Not at all. The Nats are 13-18 on the road -- as was expected in March. But they are 24-9 at home. Why on earth? Cheering fans and home cooking?

In part. But the core explanation is simpler: starting pitching. Excluding Claudio Vargas's one start at RFK, the ERA for Nats starting pitchers in 32 games is 2.31. Just go ahead and gasp. That's nuts, and by far the best in baseball. Livan Hernandez, Esteban Loaiza, John Patterson and Tony Armas Jr. are decent on the road , but in RFK their ERAs are 3.02, 1.97, 2.36 and 1.88, respectively.

How can this be? And can it continue? Subjects for the future. But the explanation for 37-27 overall, 24-9 at home and 12-1 in the most recent homestand has one, and only one, true baseball explanation: fabulous and consistent starting pitching at RFK. Given such an ERA, and an average of 62/3 innings per start, it would be hard for the Nats not to have a dazzling RFK record.

As the Homestand From Heaven recedes in memory, hold on to one thought: Give thanks for Wilson Betemit.

Who? Betemit is the utility infielder who hit in the eighth inning on June 1 with the Nats four outs away from a one-run win. Robinson saw no reason to relieve Hector Carrasco. Why should he? Betemit hit a two-run homer -- only the second home run of his career. Atlanta won, 5-4.

Without Betemit, the Nats might have won their 14th straight game. Who knows what damage he prevented? If Nats fans, already nearly delirious, had been forced to celebrate a flawless homestand, they might have screamed until poor old swaybacked RFK slowly buckled to the ground.