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Matt Williams' move backfires

WASHINGTON -- As he hopped out of the dugout to begin his long, fateful walk to the mound with two outs in the ninth inning Saturday, all Nationals manager Matt Williams thought he was about to do was make a pitching change.

Hoo boy. If he'd only known then what he knows now.

That he was about to unleash forces in the universe that were going to leave their mark on both his baseball team and on baseball history.

That his abrupt hook of Jordan Zimmermann, a man just one out away from the first postseason shutout by a pitcher from Washington since 1933, was going to turn this baseball game into an insane, 18-inning journey into frostbite and exhaustion.

That his seemingly innocent managerial mantra to justify this series-changing decision -- the old, ever-popular October refrain, "That's what we've done all year" -- was about to rush his team's magical season into the intensive-care ward.

Hoo boy. If only Matt Williams had known, all right.

But hey, that's easy for us to say. We know now exactly how it all turned out. How a Jordan Zimmermann October masterpiece turned into a devastating, 18-inning, 2-1 loss to the Giants in the Longest Postseason Baseball Game Ever Played.

How a game that was about to tie this National League Division Series at a game apiece instead has put the Giants in the kind of position even they would have had a tough time believing 48 hours earlier -- heading home, up two games to none, with their ace, Madison Bumgarner, lined up to start Game 3 on Monday.

Wow. Amazing the havoc one little pitching change can wreak. On pretty much everything.

"You know, just your normal 18-inning game," Zimmermann would deadpan later, after the first 6-hour, 23-minute postseason game in history.

But of course, there's no such animal. Especially in October. And Jordan Zimmermann was living proof.

As he held the baseball in his hand in the Washington twilight, at a little after 8 p.m. Saturday evening, there were two outs in the ninth inning and nobody on base. He'd retired the previous 20 hitters. And the last hit he'd allowed had come with no one out in the third inning.

He was every bit as dominating as he'd been in his spectacular no-hitter six days before. And even though closer Drew Storen was throwing in the bullpen, Zimmermann found himself on the precipice of the first complete-game shutout by a pitcher from Washington in a postseason game since Earl Whitehill five-hit Kiddo Davis' New York Giants in Game 3 of the 1933 World Series.

"Yeah, he was doing pretty well," the man who would wind up saving this marathon (a mere 3#189; hours later), Giants rookie Hunter Strickland, would say of Zimmermann afterward. "That's for sure."

Gee, ya think? But then it happened. With two outs, no one on and 44,035 euphoric fans tasting something special, it was then that Giants second baseman Joe Panik grounded out one of the biggest at-bats of this postseason -- a five-pitch walk, highlighted by the hardest-hit Zimmermann pitch of the day, a laser beam into the second deck in right that just happened to curl 20 feet foul.

And out of the dugout popped Matt Williams, on the way to becoming the first manager in history to yank a starting pitcher who was one out away from a postseason shutout..

But it wasn't that long foul, or the pitches that missed the strike zone, that caused the manager to hook his ace at that pivotal moment. It was merely "the plan," Williams said.

"If he got in trouble in the ninth or got a baserunner, we were going to bring our closer in," the manager said. "That's what we've done all year."

Are we allowed to interject here that "What We've Done All Year" doesn't matter in games like this? That "Win Tonight" is actually all that matters? But Matt Williams had already made up his mind -- even though Zimmermann reported he'd told him before the ninth inning, "I was fine."

"But Drew was warming up," Zimmermann said. "I knew he was ready. So the leash was short."

And when the leash was pulled, right then and there, by his manager, off he went, waving to a shrieking crowd as Storen trotted in from the bullpen in right.

Meanwhile, in the other dugout, those world-famous October magicians, the Giants, looked at each other and couldn't help but wonder if a door had just been opened that they thought had been locked tighter than Fort Knox for the past two hours.

"Zimmermann's tough," said Giants starter Tim Hudson. "He's one of the best pitchers in baseball. So, obviously, when you don't face him, you're not exactly pissed."

And suddenly, the Giants weren't exactly dead, either. Amazingly, it took just three pitches for them to climb out of that crypt. Buster Posey singled on Storen's first pitch. Pablo Sandoval sliced his third pitch into the left-field corner for a game-tying double. And it took a 2-minute, 24-second replay review to decide that Posey had barely missed scoring the winning run right there.

"We need to get Buster to do a few more sprints in spring training," Hudson quipped. "If he'd have done two more sprints this spring, he might have been able to score from first. But we'll give him a pass on that one. He's caught a lot of innings."

Well, he wound up catching 18 of them in this game. And wasn't that fun?

"I think I caught a doubleheader once in college," Posey said. "That was probably the closest thing to this. But that wasn't Game 2 of the NLDS."

Then again, pretty much no game ever played is going to be allowed to be compared to Game 2 of this NLDS.

Here's just some of the madness that wound up ensuing, once the Giants' shocking rally sent this game hurtling into totally uncharted territory:

• A team that was one out away from having its starter throw a three-hit shutout (the Nationals) would wind up using nine pitchers, breaking the NL record (and tying the major league record) for most pitchers used in a postseason game.

• The two teams would combine to use 17 pitchers, also setting an NL record (and tying the major league record) for most pitchers appearing in a postseason game.

• Altogether, those 17 pitchers would throw 485 pitches to 129 hitters, every one of them caught by the two starting catchers, Posey and Wilson Ramos. "It's hard to describe what you feel after something like that. Nine innings of postseason baseball drain you enough," Posey said. "Doubling that is pretty tough."

• It was Giants first baseman Brandon Belt who finally figured out a way to end this thing, after the two bullpens had combined for 18 innings of six-hit, 18-strikeout, no-run relief. His 18th-inning home run off Tanner Roark made him only the second man in history to go deep in the 18th inning or later of a postseason game. The other was Chris Burke in 2005. That, Belt said, "was awesome."

• After Sandoval rifled his game-tying double in the ninth, it took another 3 hours and 36 leisurely minutes for this game to finally stagger to the final out. But hey, who's counting? "I was ready to pitch," Sandoval joked. "No, just kidding."

Yusmeiro Petit made it unnecessary for Sandoval to pitch, by stalking out of the Giants' bullpen in the 12th inning and keeping his team breathing with six astonishing innings, and 80 pitches, of one-hit, seven-strikeout, no-run relief. He became the first pitcher ever to rack up seven extra-inning whiffs in one postseason game. And he became the first reliever since Pedro Martinez in 1999 to win a postseason game in which he threw at least six shutout innings. "I just can't get over Petit," said Posey. "His performance was one of the best in postseason history, in my opinion."

• Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon would get four hits in this game. It had kind of been a while since the last four-hit game by a player from Washington in a postseason game. That would be Goose Goslin, 90 years ago, in Game 4 of the 1924 World Series.

• And when this game reached the 18th inning, it became the second 18-inning postseason game of all time. The other was Game 4 of the 2005 NLDS between the Braves and Astros. Incredibly, Hudson can tell his grandchildren he was the starting pitcher in both of them. But he'll never forget the feeling of dueling Zimmermann in this one.

"It wasn't looking good for us for a while, obviously," he said, on a day when he pitched into the eighth inning for just the second time since July. "It's a 1-0 ballgame, so it seemed like it was close. But the way that Zimmermann was pitching, it really didn't seem that close."

And it didn't, actually. But then Wiliams hopped out of that dugout, waved for his bullpen and forever altered the course of postseason events.

"What a crazy game," said a weary Posey, after 6#189; hours of October zaniness. "But that's why we love it."