WASHINGTON –- There was a perfectly good explanation for why Yusmeiro Petit, the most reliable strike thrower the Giants have, jogged in from the bullpen and walked the first batter he faced Saturday night.
It is hard to throw strikes when you can’t feel your fingers.
It got cold Saturday night at Nationals Park. Space heaters burned through propane tanks in both dugouts.
Pablo Sandoval tied it with two outs in the ninth, and more than three hours later, there they were, the Giants and Washington Nationals marching through the deepening drifts of a postseason game that felt more like a Russian winter.
It was the longest game in major league playoff history. It left the Giants comfortably numb.
“I’m going to take a nap,” said Brandon Belt, after his home run in the 18th inning delivered the Giants a 2-1 victory and a chance to sweep this best-of-five NL Division Series at home behind Madison Bumgarner on Monday.
Belt’s shot off Tanner Roark might have hit the snooze bar on the Nationals’ season, and guaranteed the team with the NL’s best record a full winter to reflect on manager Matt Williams’ decision to take out dominant right-hander Jordan Zimmermann with two outs in the ninth inning.
Joe Panik had drawn a two-out, five-pitch walk off Zimmermann. Drew Storen entered.
Three pitches later, Buster Posey had singled, Pablo Sandoval had dumped a double to left field, the Giants had stunned a sellout crowd by tying it and it took a relay to the plate along with an inconclusive replay to throw out Posey and keep the visitors from doing more.
Three hours later, the Nationals matched a postseason record by bringing in their ninth and final pitcher -– in a game when their starter was one out away from a shutout.
“I know I was pretty happy,” said Tim Hudson, who pitched into the eighth but was on the hook for a 1-0 loss before Sandoval’s double. “They have some good arms down there as well, but Zimmermann was just so tough on us tonight.
“They probably could’ve brought in Sandy Koufax and we would’ve had a smile on our face.”
The Giants did not have Koufax in their bullpen. But they had Petit, and on this night, they might as well have stashed away Pedro Martinez in theirs.
In a game that featured three quality starts, essentially, Petit stood out. He took the ball in the 12th inning, fully aware that any pitch could be a cyanide capsule. Any mistake could result in a walk-off, and even on a windy and chilly night with drives dying on the track, the Nationals were studded with power threats.
Petit got the Giants to the 13th. Then he got them to the 14th. And on, and on, and on. He yielded just one hit and became the first pitcher to throw at least six shutout innings of relief and get a victory since Pedro did it in 1999.
“He stands out to me for a couple reasons,” said Posey, who caught all 18 innings. “He had to go through that lineup a couple times, and to keep them off balance like he did, in a postseason game, on the road, for me, it’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen.
“That has to be one of the greatest pitching performances in postseason history.”
Said Petit: “I feel like I started the game. I feel like I started the biggest game of my life.”
It was the longest game of his life, certainly. It ended three minutes after midnight at Nationals Park, exactly six hours and 23 minutes after it began -– besting the previous record of five hours, 50 minutes set when the Astros needed 18 innings to beat the Braves in Game 4 of an NLDS in 2005.
Hudson remembered that game well. He started that one, too, and lost. Hudson has played in six division series and never escaped the best-of-five round. He was a part of the 2001 A’s team that went up 2-0 on the Yankees and did not advance. So he is making no assumptions now.
“I understand it: Just because you won the first two on the road doesn’t mean anything,” Hudson said.
The Giants weren’t taking anything for granted after Belt finally connected against Tanner Roark’s full-count pitch in the 18th. Posey said it was Belt who yelled, “It’s not over yet! It’s not over yet!” as he descended into a jubilant dugout.
Bochy had Tim Lincecum and Hunter Strickland still in his bullpen, and he went to the rookie who made his debut Sept. 1 and should be getting fitted for a Scottsdale Scorpions uniform right now. Strickland was supposed to go to the Arizona Fall League.
His triple-digit fastball is being put to better use.
Despite issuing his first walk since June 25, when he was a Richmond Flying Squirrel facing Double-A Harrisburg, Strickland came back to retire Jayson Werth on a fly ball and make the Giants winners on a night they trailed with two outs in the ninth.
Belt proudly recalled playing in a longer game -– 25 innings and over 7 hours, in a 2009 NCAA regional between Texas and Boston College. He had it easier than most that day, since he was the designated hitter.
On this night next to the Anacostia River, Belt will go down as their designated hero -– along with Petit, Posey, Sandoval, Hudson, and a very understated walk from a rookie with two outs in the ninth.
The Giants won’t hold a workout on Sunday. They might keep an eye on the Angels and Royals, only to find out whether their home game Monday will be at 12:07 p.m. or 2:07 p.m.
“I’m pretty beat right now,” Posey said. “So I’m pulling for the Royals to sweep so we get those extra two hours.”