Brandon Belt blast in 18th inning pushes Giants past Nationals in Game 2 of NLDS

Brandon Belt (r.) celebrates with teammate Brandon Crawford after clocking a solo shot to right field in the 18th inning.Rob Carr/Getty Images Brandon Belt (r.) celebrates with teammate Brandon Crawford after clocking a solo shot to right field in the 18th inning.

WASHINGTON — The longest game in postseason baseball history was about Matt Williams alone, and none of the other subplots. Eighteen innings, six hours, 23 minutes, and one managerial mistake that probably cost the best team in the National League its entire season.

Jordan Zimmermann was one out from a Bob Gibson-level classic, leading 1-0 when he walked Joe Panik in the ninth inning. Williams sprung from the dugout, summoned closer Drew Storen — who immediately blew the lead. Many hours of inaction later, Brandon Belt’s 18th-inning homer gave the San Francisco Giants a 2-1 win, and a two games to none series advantage.

That Panik at-bat did contain a long foul ball that nearly tied the game, so you thought: Maybe Williams saw something in his guy after 100 pitches that we did not. Perhaps there were subtle signs of fatigue, data to suggest that he was fried, a solid managerial instinct at play.

Nope. Just a silly plan, and inflexible loyalty to it.

“Why did we decide to take him out?” Williams said, his answer pleasant and professional but stunning nonetheless. “Because if he got in trouble in the ninth and got a baserunner, we were going to bring our closer in. That’s what what we have done all year. Got the first two guys; he wasn’t going to face (Buster) Posey.”

So… did he see anything in that Panik at-bat that concerned him, or was it just the plan to remove Zimmermann (who, we should note, had retired 20 in a row before issuing the walk)?

“That is the plan,” Williams said. “If he goes out in the ninth, gets in trouble, we are going to the closer anyway. … Drew, since he’s been our closer, it was time to go to him.”

Zimmermann had to be livid, right? It was his night, his shutout. Right?

“I would have liked to stay out there,” Zimmermann said, calmly. “I’m not going to disagree with anything Skip does.”

OK, then. Whatever one thinks of the Nationals, they certainly display confidence. From the shutdown of Stephen Strasburg two years ago that struck many in the game as arrogant, to the swagger Jayson Werth imported from those old Phillies teams, to Willams’ brassy pitching change, this team knows what it believes — and doesn’t care if you think it crazy.

It was nearly a night about Zimmermann and Tim Hudson, as the pair matched one another in focus and intensity. Zimmermann, the Nats’ true ace, closed his regular season with a no-hitter, and appeared no worse for the strain.

Hudson, a smart veteran who has long enjoyed particular success against the Nats, used his sinker to dominate through the first two innings, and nearly escaped a sticky opening to the third.

Asdrubal Cabrera began that frame with a double, but found himself only on third with two outs. Hudson pushed Anthony Rendon to a 1-2 count, but allowed Rendon to squeak a single through, giving Washington a 1-0 lead. Hudson lasted until the eighth inning, when Rendon knocked his fourth hit.

After Williams removed Zimmerman, Storen imploded quickly. The closer, dominant of late but scarred by blowing the 2012 division series, allowed a Posey single and Pablo Sandoval to double, tying the game.

From there, the Nats descended into a deeper darkness. With Cabrera batting in the 10th, Williams and a few players began arguing balls and strikes from the bench, tossing F-bombs at the umpire. When Cabrera was called out on strikes, he tossed his helmet, and he and Williams were ejected.

The game progressed to a historic length — setting a playoff record for time, and tying the mark for innings — none of it necessary, were it not for Williams’ blunder. When it was over, the best team league was one loss away from a humiliating sweep. 

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