WASHINGTON - By the end Saturday night, the Giants and Nationals lingered like two exhausted boxers, punched out and delirious. Tension had long been replaced by resignation.
At some point, the longest playoff game in terms of time in baseball history would come to an end, and it would be remembered less as a glorious triumph and more as an ode to survival. This was a test of will, one that the Giants have been hard-wired to pass and the Nationals conditioned to fail.
So when Brandon Belt bashed a leadoff homer off Tanner Roark in the 18th inning, it had seemed inevitable.
"It's something you dream about your entire life," Belt said after giving the Giants a 2-1 win in Game 2 of this National League Division Series.
The best-of-five series now moves to San Francisco with the Giants firmly in control, up two games to none with brilliant lefty Madison Bumgarner hoping to close out the Nationals.
At 6 hours, 23 minutes, Game 2 was the longest game in playoff history. It tied for the longest by innings, sharing the record with the Braves and Astros, who went 18 innings in the 2005 NLDS.
Nine innings earlier, with victory an out away for Washington, it all unraveled so quickly, thanks to a questionable decision by manager Matt Williams and a blown save by Drew Storen.
Indeed, so much had conspired against the Nationals that bitter defeat never seemed far away. When it finally arrived, what was left of a crowd that had numbered 44,035 was forced to confront a harsh reality. The Nationals are one loss away from squandering a season in which they won an NL-best 96 games.
It didn't have to be this way.
Fresh off a no-hitter in the regular-season finale, righthander Jordan Zimmermann didn't miss a beat, retiring 20 in a row at one point. With two outs and no one on in the ninth inning, he needed only to retire Joe Panik to record a three-hit shutout and vanquish Giants counterpart Tim Hudson, who allowed one run in 71/3 innings.
Instead, with his 100th pitch of the night, Zimmermann walked Panik. Williams inexplicably emerged from the dugout with the hook -- a decision that began a chain reaction that led to the marathon.
"That is the plan," said Williams, who had resolved to pull Zimmermann if a runner reached base.
In jogged Storen, given a chance to purge himself of the playoff failure that has stained his career, only to relive his personal nightmare.
It was Storen who blew a 7-5 lead over the Cardinals in the deciding game of the NLDS in 2012. And it was Storen who needed only three pitches to undo all of Zimmermann's work this time after inheriting a 1-0 lead.
Buster Posey ripped Storen's first pitch, a 95-mph fastball, to center for a single, giving the Giants runners on first and second. Pablo Sandoval followed by lining Storen's second pitch down the leftfield line for a double.
Panik scored easily and Posey chugged along behind him, hoping to score the go-ahead run. But leftfielder Bryce Harper fired to shortstop Ian Desmond, whose throw arrived at the plate just ahead of Posey. He went into a slide, touching his right foot on the plate, convinced that he had beaten the tag by Wilson Ramos. But umpire Vic Carpazza ruled him out, a decision later upheld by review.
By a split-second margin, the Nationals had preserved a tie, but it wouldn't be long until their frustrations boiled over.
In the 10th, leadoff man Asdrubal Cabrera was ejected alongside Williams for arguing balls and strikes with umpire Vic Carapazza, an outburst that only confirmed that the Nationals' composure had been lost.
After Jayson Werth flied out to end the game, the Giants spilled onto the field, having won 10 straight playoff games, the longest streak in NL history. The Nationals, heartless by habit, slinked away in need of a win to save their season.
Said Williams: "We don't have a choice now."