Giants 5, Nationals 1

The gathering last night at RFK Stadium was full of what-ifs and might-have-beens, because that's all that remain in the last two weeks of the baseball season, when games are played between teams that aren't technically eliminated, but are merely waiting for the final, inevitable word. What, the Washington Nationals had to wonder, might have happened if their three losses prior to last night had been wins? Such thoughts aren't at all far-fetched, considering they led each of those games until their opponents' final at-bats.

Across the way, the San Francisco Giants must have pondered but one thought: What might have been had a single, 41-year-old man been in their lineup since April. Barry Bonds, it seems, will merely use the last three weeks of this season to remind people he changes games like no other offensive player in baseball.

Bonds hit his second homer in as many nights in Washington, a two-run shot in the first that sparked a 5-1 victory over the Nationals in front of an announced crowd of 32,076 that booed Bonds's appearance, but dropped its jaws at his feats. It was the Nationals' fourth loss in a row but their first when, finally, they felt like they were no longer in contention for the playoffs.

Bonds, playing in just his eighth game since returning from a series of knee operations that cost him almost the entire season, hit his fourth homer in his last four games, this one off John Patterson on a pitch Patterson and catcher Brian Schneider said was intended to be a ball off the inside part of the plate and, in fact, looked to be just that.

"I don't know how he hit it," Patterson said. "We were all talking about it after we came in the dugout."

It was Bonds's only hit, but his impact was undeniable. Patterson struck him out in his next two at-bats by throwing a curveball and a fastball, both away, and he skipped off the mound after the first strikeout, for it felt like an accomplishment.

"It's exciting to strike him out," Patterson said. "He's probably the best hitter to ever play baseball. You're playing against the greatest. It's like fighting Ali or something."

Bonds now has four homers in 22 at-bats since returning from the disabled list, and it seems reasonable that the Giants, not the decidedly mediocre San Diego Padres, would be leading the National League West had Bonds been healthy all year. Bonds now has 707 career homers, and with 11 games remaining, he is just seven shy of Babe Ruth for second on the all-time list.

"It's not a task beyond his reach," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "He's capable of doing that."

What, exactly, the Nationals are capable of accomplishing in their remaining 10 games remains to be seen. They managed all of five hits, just three off Giants starter Brad Hennessey, who lasted a career-high 72/3 innings, and made nearly as significant an impact with his bat, for he laced a double and ripped a homer, both off Patterson (9-6). The Nationals right-hander, by contrast, said he felt as good as he had in a month, yet surrendered all five runs on 10 hits.

"Between Bonds and Hennessey," Patterson said, "it was kind of bizarre."

That might describe the rest of the Nationals' season, because they have not, to this point, played games that didn't impact the postseason picture. In some ways, last night was the first time they could reflect on the season that has, just recently, slipped away. "These are tough, tough losses," said right fielder Jose Guillen, who heaped blame on himself.

"I'm not doing the job in September, when my team needs me," he said, and through eight innings, the first five hitters in Washington's lineup were 1 for 15.

There is plenty of blame to go around, and plenty to discuss in the waning days. The Nationals fell six games back of the Houston Astros in the race for the National League's wild-card playoff berth. "It would take a miracle at this point," Patterson said.

The dream basically died in those four previous losses, dating from Sept. 11. That Sunday at RFK Stadium, they trailed the Atlanta Braves 6-0, stormed back to take a 7-6 lead into the ninth, then lost on consecutive home runs by Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones.

They came back with four straight wins, and then took a 5-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth against the San Diego Padres on Saturday, only to lose, excruciatingly, 8-5 in 12 innings. That preceded a 2-1 loss on Sunday, a game which the Nationals led 1-0 in the bottom of the eighth and lost on a throwing error in the bottom of the ninth. And, finally, it led to the events of Tuesday night, when Livan Hernandez carried a 2-1 advantage into the top of the ninth, then allowed a two-out, three-run homer to Moises Alou in what, eventually, became a 4-3 loss.

So what's that? Eight, maybe 12 pitches, that separates a 4-4 stretch from one that could be an eight-game winning streak? Add them to the long list of what-ifs, the ones that will be talked about deep into the winter.

"It's tough," left fielder Brad Wilkerson said. "The losses we've suffered, we could've had eight in a row. . . . But we can't look back on that now."

Nats third baseman Vinny Castilla doesn't agree with the call that the Giants' Moises Alou is safe. "These are tough, tough losses," Jose Guillen said.