Giants 4, Nationals 3

That it would come to this -- with the ball lined off Brad Wilkerson's bat in the bottom of the ninth, with two outs and two men on, with the Washington Nationals trailing by a single run -- was improbable only 20 minutes earlier. Yet here was Wilkerson's shot, sending the San Francisco Giants' left fielder back a step, then two. He twisted. He turned. He lunged.

Barry Bonds, by that point, no longer roamed in left for the Giants. The prodigious slugger resided safely in the dugout, having long since left his indelible imprint on this game. A home run in the fourth, one that reached RFK Stadium's upper deck. A four-pitch walk in the ninth, one which preceded Moises Alou's two-out, game-changing, three-run homer. If the 41-year-old, creaky-kneed Bonds, rather than spry, 25-year-old Todd Linden, had been in left at that moment, is there any telling what might have happened?

"Yeah," Bonds said. "We would've lost."

As it turned out, the Giants won, because Linden dove back and to his right, falling just short of the warning track, spectacularly sliding on the ground and securing both the ball and a 4-3 Giants' victory that was immensely disheartening for the Nationals but was, simply, one of the best games played at RFK this season.

Consider the characters, for Bonds, who missed the first five months of the season with a surgically repaired knee, was playing his first road game of the season. He was lustily booed by the crowd of 32,403, yet he responded with a majestic homer, his third in just 19 at-bats this season, one that settled into Section 468, high above RFK's right field. Consider that he hit it off Nationals right-hander Livan Hernandez, his former teammate on the Giants, who shrugged it off and took a three-hitter into the ninth, protecting a 2-1 lead.

Consider the circumstances, with the Nationals' season teetering on the edge. By night's end, they had suffered their third straight defeat and fallen five games back of the Houston Astros, who lead the National League's wild-card race. Worse, each of those losses has come in the opponent's final at-bat, and the silence in the clubhouse afterward has grown both deafening and redundant.

"It's tough to swallow," Wilkerson said.

Yet it is all the Nationals can do. Hernandez took that lead into the top of the ninth, and the only remaining drama figured to be whether Bonds, due up fourth in the inning, would get a chance to win the game. With one out, Omar Vizquel drew a walk, but Hernandez got Edgardo Alfonzo to fly to center. Two down, and here came Manager Frank Robinson.

Other managers might have walked Bonds intentionally. "Never crossed my lips," Robinson said. The only message: "Don't give him anything to pull."

"I wanted to pitch to him," Hernandez said. "I didn't want to walk him."

But he missed with his first two pitches, a pair of close calls that Hernandez felt were strikes. The next two pitches were farther outside, and Bonds was on, pushing Vizquel, the tying run, into scoring position.

That, in turn, brought up Alou.

"We know Alou as well as we know Bonds," Robinson said. "And we know he's a very dangerous hitter, especially on the first pitch. And we didn't make a good pitch."

It took just one, a slider, and Alou hammered it over the left field wall. Instantly, the 2-1 lead became a 4-2 deficit.

It would have been plenty of drama, more than the Nationals have any right to handle. Yet given the way this season -- Washington's first with baseball in 34 years -- has gone, why not add more? Try Vinny Castilla's one-out double off Giants closer Armando Benitez in the ninth. Add Brian Schneider's ensuing walk. Add a walk from pinch hitter Ryan Church. You want drama? How about the bases juiced, down by a run, and rookie Ryan Zimmerman -- at 20, less than half Bonds's age -- at the plate?

Twenty years old, and the game on the line, Zimmerman was on a 3-1 fastball, fouling it back. Benitez threw another fastball, and Zimmerman lofted it to left. "I just missed it," he said. The sacrifice fly scored pinch runner Brandon Watson from third, making it 4-3.

So here came Wilkerson, and he swung at a 1-1 fastball. Church, on first, watched the ball off the bat. "I'm scoring easily," he said he thought.

"Wow," Wilkerson thought as he ran. "We might win this game."

But as Church tore toward third, he watched third base coach Dave Huppert.

"I saw Hup put up the stop sign," Church said, "and I heard the crowd go, 'Awwww,' and I knew."

It was the sound that has become, recently, all too familiar, the sound of a heart-breaking loss that, by now, just means the season is thumping, plodding, toward its inevitable, painful end.

Barry Bonds launched a homer into RFK's second deck in the fourth, then walked in the ninth to set up Moises Alou's blast.Jose Vidro, right, and teammates don rally caps in the bottom of the ninth, but Todd Linden's diving catch ended it.