SAN FRANCISCO - These are the kinds of games that sting a little longer, and it's not because of the balls that found their way over, under and around the gloves of Nationals players. It's not because of the single Nate Schierholtz flipped to center in the seventh inning, and it's not because of the yardstick or so that kept Adam Dunn's double from being a homer.
It's because all these things, taken collectively, raise the question of whether the Nationals are good enough to overcome them.
A five-game losing streak yanked the Nationals back to .500 nine days ago, and they haven't been more than a game over or a game under the mark since. That's because of games like today's, which was so much like most of the games the Nationals play. Leads are small, certain outcomes are scare and little moments either sustain the team or submerge it.
The Nationals lost 5-4 to the San Francisco Giants on Thursday afternoon at AT&T Park, falling back to .500 and dropping two out of three here after thumping two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum on Wednesday. Like Tuesday's loss, a few bloop hits and quirky bounces pushed a win just beyond the Nationals' grasp.
"You play close games, one little mistake, like what I did in the seventh, cost us the game," said Dunn, who made an error to start the bottom of the seventh. "Offensively, we need to step it up and put teams away when we have the opportunity to do that, and we're not doing that."
After an umpire review correctly ruled that Dunn's seventh-inning double bounced off the cement at the top of the right-field wall and didn't hit the green metal roof that would have made it a homer, the Nationals got just one run out of a bases-loaded situation. That, not anything that happened in the inning after, was the cardinal sin in the loss. At the very least, it cost the Nationals a chance to cover over all the other ones that would come in the bottom of the inning.
Dunn missed a John Bowker grounder, believing it was hit harder than it was and getting caught in between charging it and waiting for it to get to him. He wound up on the side of the ball, not in front of it, and missed a backhanded attempt at the ball. A Carlos Maldonando passed ball moved Bowker to second, and when Nate Schierholtz fished at a Sean Burnett slider, Bowker scored.
"It was a good pitch. It was actually off the plate," Burnett said. "He stayed on it, and hit it up the middle. He did his job, and unfortunately, I didn't get the job done."
Andres Torres followed with a broken-bat single to right, Justin Maxwell allowed both runners to advance when he struggled to pick up the ball and Freddy Sanchez brought home two runs with a single through the hole at short.
The Giants had a 5-4 lead, and the Nationals killed their last good shot to win when Willie Harris hit into a double play in the eighth.
The real sticking point of this series, in the end, was that both of the Nationals' losses turned on bloop base hits. The Giants shot their arrows precisely where the Nationals are vulnerable right now without Ivan Rodriguez, and Washington's offense either couldn't rally or cement a lead.
In the Nationals' last eight games, only one (their emphatic 7-3 victory over Lincecum and the Giants on Wednesday) has been decided by more than three runs, and the team is 4-4 in that stretch. Failing an addition, or an internal improvement on offense, they're likely to stay locked in these types of dances. The partners may change, but the steps will remain the same, and on days like Thursday, the Nationals won't like the way the dance - or perhaps there's a less cordial term for it - ends.
"It's bear hunting. Sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes the bear gets you," said reliever Tyler Walker, who allowed Sanchez's base hit in the seventh. "Too bad we were on the bad end of it today."