Loss in 18 puts Nats on cusp of elimination


It was the longest postseason game in Major League Baseball history, in terms of time (the old record was five hours and 50 minutes, set by the Braves and Astros on Oct. 9, 2005). And with 15 relievers used -- seven for San Francisco, eight for Washington -- it was the kind of game that can get people frothing over in-game tedium if it happens in August and raving about the drama when it happens in October. But most of all, there was more than enough in this game to leave Nats fans seeing red by the time this one finally ended after more than six hours of baseball. Because down two games to none, coming up short in this particular game might be how they have to remember this season.

But the defining moments? You have to start with what set it all up …

1. The Giants tie things up in the ninth inning. Jordan Zimmermann had a shutout going, and he was an out shy of a complete game. Then he walked Joe Panik on his 100th pitch of the evening, leading Nationals manager Matt Williams to go to the pen.

Williams brought in Drew Storen, but the Nats’ late-season answer to their closer question responded by giving up back-to-back base hits to Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval, allowing the tying run to score, with the potential lead run (Posey) thrown out at home to end the inning. The play was close, made closer still by Bryce Harper’s throw from the left-field corner to the cutoff man, and it was necessarily reviewed. But both the home-plate ump and the review got the call right: Posey’s lead foot looks like it missed the plate, and the tag beat the trailing leg.

The ninth inning ruined all sorts of stuff that different people were rooting for, for different reasons and on different levels of seriousness: A postseason game under three hours, a Madduxian pitch count for Zimmermann, or something as simple as a Nationals win. It also automatically created no end of questions for Matt Williams in the hours, days and weeks to come over the Nationals’ newly reheated closer controversy. It might also be the moment likely to be synonymous with regret in D.C. baseball history for years to come, perhaps the single biggest moment of diamond disappointment in the District since Walter Johnson gave up five runs in the seventh and eighth innings for the Senators to blow Game 7 of the 1925 World Series.

2. Brandon Belt’s home run in the 18th. To win the game, on a no-doubt blast to right field after a full game’s worth of fans shrieking at every fly ball that got within 50 feet of the wall, hoping for release. Belt has been somebody the Giants, their fans and a significant portion of the stathead community have been waiting on to break out. After an injury-wracked 2014 season, this wasn’t the year, and after his 0-for-6 in this game, it didn’t seem like this would be the night for it either. But just like that, he got a pitch from Tanner Roark he could tear into and instantly erased months of disappointment.

3. Yusmeiro Petit throws a quality start in relief. If you weren’t already a believer in Petit’s value to the Giants this season as an old-school swingman, bouncing between the rotation (usually subbing for an ineffective Tim Lincecum) and middle relief, his spinning six shutout innings eliminated the need for Bruce Bochy to pitch matchup games and place too heavy a demand on his bullpen in this one game. Not that it might mean much with Madison Bumgarner on deck to start Game 3, but after seeing an ace lose this game, you don’t want to surrender any potential advantage. Belt might get the signature moment for the decision, but Petit’s pitching made it possible.

4. Asdrubal Cabrera and Matt Williams have a cow. The last thing you need in a game like this is to lose a player or your manager over a late-game freak-out, but after blowing the game in the ninth, you could understand how tensions were running high in the Nationals’ dugout. However, when Cabrera flipped out over getting called out on a strike in the 10th, it automatically cost the Nats a position player, forcing Danny Espinosa into the game, initially as a pinch runner, because why burn anyone else? It also meant leaving in-game decision-making to coach Randy Knorr & Co. after Williams ran interference and got himself ejected, as well, on the off chance that his intercession might help preempt a Cabrera in-series suspension. As if that wasn’t galling enough, Cabrera didn’t even really have a legitimate complaint:

5. Zimmermann throws 45 pitches to get through five innings. I’m cheating here, because this wasn’t a single moment so much as a blur of incredible efficiency on the mound as Zimmermann wound up retiring 20 straight men before that ninth-inning, two-out walk to Joe Panik. That sort of performance generated its fair share of in-game wonder …

Keep in mind, this was immediately after the Nationals had taken the lead in the third, making this look like a dead ball-era special. Considering that two of those innings (the fourth and the seventh) involved getting the heart of the Giants’ order -- Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence -- out one-two-three, that’s especially impressive. It was even more impressive considering that Sandoval and Pence had both owned Zimmermann up to that point on their careers, going a combined 14-for-33 (.424) with two homers. So yeah, that no-hitter he threw on the season’s final day? Just a bit of a suggestion that somebody is ready to roll this time of year. But the Nats are first going to have to advance to the NLCS for that to be something for anyone to have to worry about going forward, and right now, that doesn’t look very likely.

Something extra: Anyone else wondering about Anthony Rendon’s steal in the eighth inning? It might not seem like a big deal, but if Rendon doesn’t steal, does Bochy let the right-handed Jean Machi face Adam LaRoche? With two outs, LaRoche getting a shot at doing some extra-base damage against right-handed pitching was probably the Nats’ better chance at generating a potentially critical insurance run, having slugged .501 versus right-handers on the year but just .336 while hitting .204 against lefties. With a runner in scoring position and even with a Machi strike on LaRoche already on the board, two outs or not, Bochy wasn’t taking any chances in a one-run game, calling for a southpaw and counting on Matt Williams’ offensive indifference. Giants situational star Javier Lopez had already whiffed LaRoche eight times in 11 plate appearances without allowing a hit. Spotted a strike, Lopez notched another whiff at LaRoche’s expense, making it a matchup to keep in mind for the remainder of this series. The steal effectively took the bat out of LaRoche’s hands when you want him to get to hit against non-star, right-handed help. He won’t get many more chances like that in this series after being the Nats’ key Steady Eddie on offense this season.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.