SAN FRANCISCO -- Owning the best record in baseball doesn't come without burden. In addition to incessant pressure and lofty expectations, the Giants are going to face teams eager to stake claims as worthy challengers.
Such is the case with the Washington Nationals, who rolled into San Francisco this week and have rattled off three straight victories, including a 6-2 decision Wednesday, in a battle between division leaders in the National League.
The Nationals won for the eighth time in nine games. In many ways, they are doing a spot-on impersonation of what the Giants did for much of the past two months.
"Very similar," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "When a good team gets on a roll ... you expect it. You get used to it."
The Nationals held the Giants to two runs or fewer in each of the first three games of the four-game series, which might seem surprising given the Giants' potent offense.
Then again, Bochy said, the Nationals pitching is so good that you can't plan on scoring much against any of their front-line starters.
"You hope your guys are on," Bochy said, "and Matt (Cain) happened to get off to a rough start."
These days, that's all the Nationals need. They jumped on Cain for three runs in the first inning -- after Cain walked the first three batters -- and kept the Giants at arm's length the rest of the game.
"I really put our guys behind the eight-ball," Cain said. "It was too much of a deficit to come back from."
Washington's Tanner Roark followed masterful performances by Stephen Strasburg and Doug Fister with one of his own Wednesday.
The Giants turn to ace Tim Hudson on Thursday in hopes of avoiding a sweep by a Nationals team that moved past the Atlanta Braves for sole possession of first place in the National League East.
The Giants maintained their 7½-game lead over the Dodgers, who lost to Cincinnati, in the National League West.
It's not time for the Giants to panic, by any stretch. This simply is a not-so-subtle reminder that playing at a .667 clip, as the Giants did through their first 63 games, is difficult to maintain.
Yet, it's worth noting that the Giants lost three straight for only the second time this season. It last happened April 17-19.
"We've hit a little bump in the road," Bochy said. "What's important is how we handle it."
The Giants went 32-13 in the 45 games after their first three-game losing streak and secured the majors' best record, along with glowing testimonials from many who anointed them the best all-around team.
The Nationals splashed a dose of cynicism on the Giants' being the unquestioned team to beat with three convincing victories, though the Giants still own the best record and the largest division lead.
Cain struggled in his second start since he returned from the 15-day disabled list. He allowed only three hits over five innings. In the end, the walks proved too costly.
"Tough start for him and for us," Bochy said. "And we were facing a pretty good pitcher. We were facing an uphill climb."
Cain settled down after the first inning. By then, the Nationals had firm control of the game and tightened their grip as things progressed.
"For some reason, I couldn't get the ball over the plate," Cain said of his early struggles. "I was a few inches off both sides of the plate. I missed badly on (some)."
"He turned for the worse," Bochy said in explaining why Sandoval was relegated to pinch-hitting duty.
Sandoval had a run-scoring single as a pinch hither in the seventh. There's a chance Sandoval will start Thursday, Bochy said.
"He's shown that he can pitch up here," Bochy said. "We just didn't have room at this point. It would have been nice to have him in (Triple-A) Fresno."
Washington (Blake Treinen 0-2) at Giants (Tim Hudson 6-2), 12:45 p.m., CSNBA