SAN FRANCISCO, June 28 (Reuters) - For the last time this season, the man who would be home run king flexes his muscles against the reigning monarch.
With the 2001 season approaching its midway point, Barry Bonds is on course to shatter the single-season home run record of 70 set by Mark McGwire in 1998.
Considering the kind of attention McGwire drew in his epic battle against Sammy Sosa three years ago, this weekend's three-game series pitting Bonds' San Francisco Giants against McGwire's St Louis Cardinals provides a perfect media prologue for Bonds' second-hat! home-run chase.
It is the last time the two teams square off in regular play this year and the 36-yearold Bonds -- in his 16th season -- has been on a power-hitting tear.
He reached 39 home runs faster than any player in major league history and set the record for most homers before the All-Star break, which this year runs from July 911
Now, he is poised to eclipse McGwire's single-season record and at his current pace, is projected to hit a whopping 80 homers.
Another tantalising fact that could unfold in the series beginning on Friday night in San Francisco, is that fans have a chance to witness Bonds and McGwire become only the third pair of 500-homer hitters to knock one out of the park in the same game.
Former Giant Willie Mays did it twice -- once with Ernie Banks in 1970, and again the following year with Hank Aaron.
However, with injuries and slumps plaguing the likes of Ken Griffey Jr., Nomar Garciaparra and McGwire, who only recently returned to action, nothing is certain at this still early stage of the season.
A major hitting drought could set in and as the pressure mounts, it could take its toll on a man who has never hit more than 50 homers in a season.
But not since 1998, when Big Mac and Sosa traded long-balls in record fashion, has baseball been on the verge of home-run fever.
"It's clearly more dramatic now," said Bob Rose, the Giants team spokesman, citing the small cadre of national media that have started to show up at games and the increased volume of requests for one-on-one interviews with Bonds.
Fans have noticed too "When Barry comes to the plate, it's quiet," Rose said. "People don't want to miss his at-bat."
Despite his superlative slugging, Bonds' team have struggled through the first half of the season.
The 2000 National League West Division champions, who sported baseball's best record last year, are only four games above .500 and they trail the division-leading Arizona Diamondbacks by six games.
Ironically, the Cardinals also limped through the 98 season, finishing 19 games out of first place despite McGwire's home-run heroics.
But the Giants have shown signs of a turnaround lately, posting a 15-10 record in June with some tighter pitching from the bullpen and improved batting from last year's National League MVP Jeff Kent.
Bonds, in contrast, has cooled a bit in the last few days. The leftfielder has been bogged down on 39 homers since last Sunday, when he banged one off an upperdeck pillar at McGwire's home park Busch Stadium.
Bonds has said publicly that he doesn't give himself much of a chance of breaking McGwire's record.
"Not a chance," he said after smacking his 38th of the season on June 20.
The shot that made him the most prolific pre-All-Star home run hitter ever, surpassing the record of 37 jointly held by Hall-of-Famer Reggie Jackson and McGwire.
"I'm not Mark McGwire," Bonds said. "I'm just not that powerful a hitter."
Bonds, who is second to McGwire on total homers among active players with 533 long blasts, has said he believes he has decent chance at reaching 50 homers, which would break his season-best mark of 49 set last year.
With 10 games to go before the All-Star game. Bonds could also easily add to preAll-Star break record.
However, San Francisco tans are worried that this season could be Bonds' last in a Giants uniform.
The slugger is in the last year of his contract and he could become a free agent at the end of the season.