Saturday night was about heroes and ghosts and everything in between. The marathon at Nationals Park included mastery and meltdowns, players warming their hands by a heater in the dugout and little-known relievers pitching their guts out. The Washington Nationals and the San Francisco Giants engaged in the kind of game that makes you love baseball and curse its existence and pace around the living room and ask the person next to you, what inning is it again? They played the kind of game that makes you feel alive until it makes you sick to your stomach.

The longest — and surely most torturous — playoff game in Washington baseball history became the longest game in all of postseason history. It lasted until the last man out of the Nationals’ bullpen, usual starter Tanner Roark, yielded an upper-deck home run to Giants first baseman Brandon Belt in the 18th inning. Nationals Park turned pin-drop quiet as the remainder of the Nationals’ 2-1 loss in Game 2 of the National League Division Series played out, the last gasp of an epic, perhaps the final whimper of a Nationals season suddenly in jeopardy. In Game 3 on Monday, the Nationals will place their season in the hands of Doug Fister against Giants ace left-hander Madison Bumgarner.

“We’ve got an uphill climb,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “But I believe in this team and these guys. If anybody can do it, we can. We’ve just got to stay positive and play our game. I really do. I believe we can do it.”

The Nationals could have won before the 6-hour, 23-minute game reached middle age. Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann, six days removed from throwing a no-hitter, came within one out of a shutout before Manager Matt Williams pulled him, leading 1-0, after he had walked Joe Panik to break a string of 20 consecutive batters retired.

“I knew I was on a short leash,” Zimmermann said. “I would have liked to stay out there, yes. But I’m not going to disagree with anything Skip does.”

The Washington Nationals lost a second game to the San Francisco Giants in the longest post season game in MLB history. Jordan Zimmermann, Drew Storen, Bryce Harper, Asdrubal Cabrera and Tyler Clippard share their thoughts on what went wrong and why the next game is important. (Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

“If he got in trouble in the ninth or got a base runner, we were going to bring our closer in,” Williams said. “That’s what we’ve done all year.”

The decision will be debated for, oh, only a generation or two. In his return to the postseason, closer Drew Storen blew the save by allowing hits to both hitters he faced. The Nationals bailed him out from taking a loss when Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond teamed for a relay to cut down the go-ahead run at the plate.

The madness and marathon had just started. The bullpens dueled for an entire game’s worth of innings as the October chill knocked down potential game-ending blasts — Anthony Rendon and Adam LaRoche drove deep flyballs to the warning track in the 15th and 16th innings. Giants right-hander Yusmeiro Petit threw 80 pitches in six scoreless, one-hit relief innings. 

Asdrubal Cabrera spiked his bat and his helmet to draw an ejection from home plate umpire Vic Carapazza in the 10th inning, and Williams got himself ejected seconds later. They would watch from the clubhouse for another eight innings.

Before Belt’s blast, the Nationals’ bullpen pitched eight scoreless extra innings. Tyler Clippard, Matt Thornton, Aaron Barrett and Jerry Blevins combined for the first three. Craig Stammen, the right-hander from tiny North Star, Ohio, known to bullpen mates as The Trunk Slammer, pitched the next three, retiring the entire Giants lineup while allowing one hit, a single by Buster Posey that catcher Wilson Ramos erased when he gathered a loose ball, spun and fired a seed to second. Rafael Soriano, the deposed closer the Nationals kept on the playoff roster based more on faith than recent performance, pitched a 1-2-3 16th inning.

Roark, the last line of defense, the Nationals’ ninth pitcher of the night, powered through the 17th inning. Belt led off the 18th. Roark fed him a 3-2, 94-mph fastball low and in the strike zone. Belt crushed it and dropped his bat where he stood. Roark looked to the sky, and his shoulders drooped. The Nationals trailed, 2-1.

“Everyone was waiting for that,” Bryce Harper said. “We just wish it was us.”

The Library of Congress recently found nearly perfectly preserved nitrate film of a "Kinograms" newsreel showing the Washington Senators winning the World Series over the New York Giants and fans storming the field at Griffith Stadium to celebrate. (Library of Congress)

Six days after Zimmermann twirled the first no-hitter by a Washington major leaguer since 1931, he came within one out of throwing the first postseason shutout by a Washington major leaguer since Earl Whitehill in the 1933 World Series.

In the eighth, as the Giants made two pitching changes, pitching coach Steve McCatty approached Zimmermann and asked how he felt. “I’m fine,” Zimmermann responded. Williams walked over later in the inning.

“How you feeling?” he asked.

“I’m fine,” Zimmermann said. “I’m good to go.”

Zimmerman took the mound on 88 pitches, sitting on 18 consecutive hitters retired. With two outs in the ninth, Zimmermann fell behind Panik with a ball. He fired a 1-0 fastball on the outside corner, and Carapazza called ball two.

“I thought [the pitch] was a strike,” Zimmermann said. “It changed the whole at-bat. I had to come after him, and I ended up missing.”

Panik smashed the 2-0 fastball just foul over the right field fence. Zimmermann walked Panik with his 100th pitch. He still felt strong, he said. Williams emerged from the dugout, asking for the ball with Buster Posey on deck. In Zimmermann’s previous showdown with Posey, he had tattooed a lineout at third baseman Anthony Rendon.

“He wasn’t going to face Posey,” Williams said. “… Hindsight is a great thing. You know, if our starting pitcher goes out there, and he’s at 100 pitches, third time, fourth time through the lineup, he gets in trouble in the ninth, we’ll go to the guy who was perfect for us since he has been in that role.”

Williams handed the ball to Storen, the closer who had not allowed an earned run 23 innings. He last climbed a playoff mound with a two-run lead in Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS and yielded four runs.

“You can’t second-guess managerial decisions,” Werth said. “It’s not an easy job. It’s a thankless job and it’s not an easy job. Whatever decisions he makes, I stand behind.”

Posey whacked the first pitch Storen threw into center field for a single. Storen needed an out to seal a playoff victory, one more pitch, the feeling he had lived with, somewhere inside him, for two years. 

Pablo Sandoval sliced a double down the left field line, and 44,035 hearts dropped.

“Absolutely not,” Storen said when asked if 2012 replayed in his mind. “I made quality pitches and they fell in. There’s more baseball to be played.”

Panik crossed with the tying run as Harper collected the ball in the corner. Third base coach Tim Flannery waved home Posey, the go-ahead run. Harper's bullet throw zipped to Desmond. Desmond rifled a one-hopper to Ramos.

Over the course of his star-crossed career, Ramos has struggled to hold on to the ball on tag plays at home plate. Ramos squeezed the ball with both hands and applied the tag to Posey's hip as he slid home. Carapazza pumped his fist — out.

Instant replay reviews have become part of the postseason for the first time, and so the game paused as the umpires gathered behind home plate and pulled on headsets. The video board showed the slo-mo. Half the crowd cheered. The other half groaned. The stadium went silent before the call came from New York. The call stood — the crew in New York deemed there not enough clear evidence to reverse it.

Leading off the 10th inning, Cabrera took Jeremy Affeldt’s 3-1 fastball, high and outside, and started walking toward first. Carapazza called strike two. As Cabrera meandered back to the batter’s box, he circled Carapazza to scream at him. Frustration had been building — in the ninth inning, Harper had barked and pointed at Carapazza after he found fault with a close call.

Affeldt fired a similar pitch on 3-2. Cabrera took it and took a step toward first. Carapazza rang him up, and Cabrera melted down. He spiked his helmet first, then his bat, and hollered in Carapazza’s face. Carapazza ejected him before Williams could intercede.

“I think he called bad calls today,” Cabrera said. “My last AB I think it was too high and the last one, too. I think I’m doing good right there. In that moment, you’re not thinking to do something like that. The game and situation make you do that kind of stuff. I think I’m good.”

Williams yelled in Carapazza’s face, and Carapazza thumbed Williams, too. For the remainder, Danny Espinosa played second base and bench coach Randy Knorr managed. 

“He slammed the bat to the ground,” crew chief Mike Winters said. “That’s going to be gone. Even in a game of this magnitude, he’s got to have enough self-control to not to that. He could’ve said his piece and left and probably stayed in the game.”

The Nationals never scored after Rendon’s RBI single — one of his four hits — in the third inning off Giants starter Tim Hudson, the one who offered this series a backdrop by complimenting the Nationals’ talent while challenging their fortitude. The Nationals went scoreless for the final 15 innings, with Harper and LaRoche each going 0 for 7.

When it ended, the Nationals gathered their things and readied for a trip to San Francisco. A book rested on Fister’s suitcase: “Fall of Giants” by Ken Follet.

They would need to win two games to save their season and bring the series back to Washington, back for more of the baseball that makes you wonder why you love it so much.

“I’m sure it’s going to be a quiet flight,” Zimmermann said.