Joe Panik of the San Francisco Giants scores on a...

Joe Panik of the San Francisco Giants scores on a wild pitch in the seventh inning against the Washington Nationals during Game 4 of the National League Division Series at AT&T Park on Oct. 7, 2014 in San Francisco. Credit: Getty Images / Ezra Shaw

Potential solutions sat nearby in the Nationals dugout, all of them within arm's reach, waiting to be deployed when called.

There was Tyler Clippard, a brilliant reliever who had been tested under pressure. And there was Stephen Strasburg, the franchise ace who could have pitched in relief with his team facing elimination.

Nationals manager Matt Williams could have tapped either to help squash a rally and keep his team's season alive. Instead, he went with untested rookie Aaron Barrett, whose seventh-inning meltdown pushed the Giants to a 3-2 victory to capture the National League Division Series.

The brash Bryce Harper had just tied the game at 2, blasting a seventh-inning solo shot into McCovey Cove.

But the Giants rallied in their half of the inning, lashing back-to-back hits off lefty Matt Thornton, forcing Williams to make a decision. He chose Barrett, the 26-year-old rookie.

"You just have to try to take a deep breath and make the pitches, like I did all year," said Barrett, who failed to compose himself.

With runners on first and second, Barrett walked Pence to load the bases.

Then in the space of three pitches, Barrett bounced a fastball past catcher Wilson Ramos, then threw another to the screen on an intentional walk. The wild pitch scored Joe Panik, pushing the Giants to a tense 3-2 victory to capture the series in four games.

The Nationals had won 96 games, most in the NL. For the second time in three years, their season stalled in the first round.

The Giants' Hunter Pence made a leaping grab against the wall to blunt a rally in the sixth inning, bouncing off the fence like a crash-test dummy.

Either the image of Pence's catch or Bryce's homer would have been a fitting representative for such a tense contest.

Instead, the defining moment involved Barrett, who flailed when called upon to end a rally.

Following the wild pitch that scored Panik, Williams signaled for an intentional walk of Pablo Sandoval. One pitch sailed over Ramos' mitt, one-hopping the screen. Ramos scrambled to retrieve it. He fired to the plate, where Barrett applied the tag in time to get Buster Posey.

"It was just one of those weird plays where they ended up getting me," Posey said.

The Nationals held the deficit to one. It didn't matter. The Giants had pushed ahead, and they weren't looking back.

In need of a near-perfect performance to force the series back to Washington, the Nationals made too many mistakes.

In the second inning, starter Gio Gonzalez botched an easy comebacker, then failed to field a bunt, giving the Giants a 2-0 lead.

Harper's homer in the seventh was a tape-measure shot off Giants fireballer Hunter Strickland, whose 97-mph fastball wound up buzzing a few kayakers in McCovey Cove. Harper raised his right arm and stared down Strickland on his way around the bases.

His dugout greeted him with a sea of high-fives. The Nationals evened the score.

Reprieve proved temporary. Soon, the Giants were spilling out of their dugout, their playoff pedigree once again tested. They passed, sending the Nationals slinking away to another bitter winter.

Williams had made the wrong call, just as he did when he pulled Jordan Zimmermann with one out to get in Game 2, which later turned into a bitter 18-inning loss. And once again, he offered a flimsy defense, defaulting to habit instead of adapting to the situation.

"Because those are our seventh-inning guys," Williams said, defiantly. "That's how we set this up."

More MLB news