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Audition for a historic role

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The baseball world converges tonight on San Francisco, where the most controversial slugger this game has ever seen will take aim at the sport's most-hallowed record.

Barry Bonds will step to the plate at AT&T Park — with adoring hometown fans cheering and indignant onlookers around the country jeering — and attempt to surpass Hank Aaron by hitting his 756th career home run.

Standing in Bonds' way, hoping to keep himself out of a highlight reel that will be replayed ad nauseam for decades, will be a young Washington Nationals pitcher nearly half his age who may have a tough time comprehending how he wound up in this precarious position.

"It's a very hard thing to think about, and I'm trying not to think about it," said John Lannan, the 22-year-old left-hander making his third major league appearance. "I'm trying to act like it's any other start because it really is. It's just, a big part of history might happen."

That's putting it mildly. Few sporting achievements are as revered as Aaron's record, which stood for 33 years until Bonds matched it Saturday night with an opposite-field blast in San Diego. And few star athletes are as reviled as Bonds, whose pursuit of this record has been clouded by accusations he used performance-enhancing drugs.

Baseball has been prepared for this moment since Bonds returned this spring for his 22nd major league season. The chase took a bit longer than most expected, with the 43-year-old Bonds mired in one of the worst slumps of his career before finally connecting for home run No. 755.

Now, though, the inevitable has arrived. Even if baseball fans, opposing teams, former players or Bud Selig don't want to see it, Bonds will set the record, perhaps as soon as tonight.

And the unsuspecting Nationals have no choice but to embrace their role in this monumental event.

As veteran reliever Ray King put it: "The game's got to be played."

So Washington manager Manny Acta will hand the ball tonight to Lannan, a heretofore anonymous lefty who opened the season at Class A Potomac but thrust himself into the club's immediate plans with his surprising performance at three different minor league stops.

"I really don't even know what to say," Lannan said. "Whatever happens, happens. It's out of my hands. I can just go out there and do what I do."

Like many of his teammates, Lannan has never faced Bonds before, nor has he pitched in a pressure-filled situation like this. Perhaps that lack of big-game experience actually will suit the Nationals well. This team, which completed a 6-0 homestand yesterday by sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals, hasn't been fazed by anything all season. Why start now?

"To tell you the truth, I don't think these guys right here care," Acta said. "I don't know if they're too young and haven't gone through it. But they're going to go about their business like they've been doing it."

Washington's few veteran players seem to echo their manager's sentiments.

"We're not worried about the media spectacle that's going to be there because the guy's chasing history," first baseman Dmitri Young said. "Whoop-tee-do."

Conventional wisdom says Bonds is likely to hit at least one home run during a four-game series in which the opposition will trot out a starting rotation of Lannan, Mike Bacsik, Tim Redding and Joel Hanrahan. That quartet owns a combined 34 big league victories.

But given Bonds' recent struggles, the Nationals' recent success and a lack of familiarity all around, the Giants star may face a tougher challenge than he realizes.

Bonds has batted against only five of Washington's current 11 pitchers and has enjoyed virtually no success: He's 0-for-2 against Bacsik, Luis Ayala and Chad Cordero, 1-for-5 against Redding and 1-for-16 against King.

King, a nine-year veteran left-handed specialist, figures to encounter Bonds multiple times during this series. Bonds' one hit off him was a home run, but for the most part King has emerged victorious in their head-to-head battles because of a simple philosophy.

"I don't treat him any different than any other left-handed hitter I face," he said. "I'm just going to go right after him. I'm not going to do anything different than I've done in the past. I'm going to throw sinkers in, and I'm going to throw sliders away."

The Nationals as a whole will not shy away from Bonds, who has been intentionally walked a record 679 times in his career but will be pitched to this week unless the situation specifically calls for a free pass.

"If the game is on the line and [first] base is unoccupied and we think he can hurt us, we're going to walk him," Acta said. "But unless these guys are going to do it behind my back or something, we're not going to do anything different. He deserves to be pitched [to]. We care about the game. We don't care about what he does or doesn't do."

If Bonds does homer any of the next three nights, he won't be forced to celebrate his achievement in awkward fashion with Selig, the commissioner who has done everything in his power to distance himself from the controversial slugger. After witnessing most of the Giants' games the last two weeks, Selig will be in New York and Milwaukee the next three days tending to business.

He's expected to be represented in San Francisco by Frank Robinson, the Major League Baseball front-office official, former Nationals manager and outspoken steroids critic, which could make for an awkward scene of its own.

Perhaps, then, it was all meant to shake out this way — Bonds playing at home, Selig 3,000 miles away, the plucky Nationals hoping to crash the party and avoid playing a role in one of the most significant moments in baseball history.

"He's got 755," Washington pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. "There's a lot of pitchers who have given it up to him. ... As much as we say it's no big deal to give up 756, no pitcher wants to give that 756th homer up."

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