WASHINGTON — You can thank Pablo Sandoval for the longest playoff game in history.
Sandoval, a career .309 hitter in the postseason, and a free agent Red Sox target this offseason, lined a double on an 0-and-2 pitch to left field off Nationals reliever Drew Storen to score Joe Panik with the tying run in the top of the ninth to make it 1-1.
The go-ahead run almost scored, too, but Buster Posey was tagged out on a close play at the plate.
“It was 50-50,’’ Sandoval said. “Wish we could have scored that one, but thank God Brandon [Belt] hit it out.”
A whole game later, former Red Sox draft pick Belt slammed a leadoff homer to right in the 18th inning to provide the winning margin, 2-1, in this epic affair as the Giants took a 2-0 lead in their playoff series.
Sandoval likely thanked the baseball gods that Nationals manager Matt Williams removed the unhittable Jordan Zimmermann after he walked Panik. Zimmermann, who had a no-hitter in his last start Sept. 28, had thrown his 100th pitch.
“I was very happy [Zimmermann left the game],’’ Sandoval said. “He did his job, but he looked like he was getting tired.’’
Storen came in and Posey singled to center, setting up Sandoval.
“I missed a fastball, but then he threw me a slider low and away,’’ Sandoval said. “It was a good pitcher’s pitch, but I was able to focus and go with the pitch and hit it somewhere hard.’’
The combination of Williams’s move and Sandoval’s hit sent the game into the 18th inning, by which time the game had surpassed the length of the Astros-Braves playoff game in 2005.
Sandoval has been considered a threat after his three homers in his first three at-bats in Game 1 of the 2012 World Series against the Tigers. He went on to win the World Series MVP. Sandoval, who has been on two World Series winners with the Giants, wants to go out on top.
The Giants would be surprised if Sandoval was their starting third baseman next season, with the team’s management not likely to offer more than a three-year deal for the heavy-set switch-hitter, who is likely to receive better offers.
The Red Sox have been linked to Sandoval because they need a lefthanded hitter and third base seems the logical place for the player to go, given they have no strong in-house candidate unless they commit to Garin Cecchini.
For the Giants, the Sandoval experience has entailed years of having to play the weight game.
He’s been so overweight at times (up to 278 pounds one year) and even now in his walk year, Sandoval, according to one Giants official, is 20 pounds heavier than he was in spring training after he had lost 30 pounds.
Sandoval’s brother acts as his personal cook and tries to help him with weight. The feeling is eating healthy food has prevented him from exploding again. But the fact is Sandoval is always going to be a risk because of his weight.
That’s part of the reason the Giants have trouble going beyond three years. Eventually the Giants believe Sandoval’s weight will prevent him from being a top defensive third baseman. So going to the American League, where a team eventually will be able to play him at DH, might be his best move.
Nonetheless, most major league executives we’ve talked to believe Sandoval will wind up with a five-year deal worth about $100 million. That could be with the Red Sox, Yankees, or Dodgers.
Sandoval, a .294 career hitter in the regular season with an .811 OPS, is considered a very good hitter who could do well at Fenway Park because he can shoot the ball to left-center from the left side of the plate.
You wouldn’t think hitting at AT&T Park in San Francisco for 81 games doesn’t do him any favors — but he’s been amazingly consistent at home and on the road.
Besides his weight, the other red flag is his declining OPS the last four years. He’s gone from .909 to.789, to .758 to .739. Overall, he hit .279 with 16 homers and 73 RBIs.
Overall, the feeling is he’s never lived up to full expectations in San Francisco, but on the positive side, he’s 28 years old and perhaps just heading into his prime years.
Sandoval hits fourth in the Giants lineup and he gets the benefit of having Posey hitting in front of him. He would have similar protection in Boston with David Ortiz and his inside-out stroke, as witnessed on the game-tying hit, would likely be the norm at Fenway.
Sandoval, who hails from Puerto Carabobo, Venezuela, has told friends Boston would be a welcome destination.
When told he was talking to a reporter from Boston, Sandoval smiled and said, “Can’t talk about anything right now. We have a big job ahead. We’ve got a lot of work to do through the playoffs. ‘’
Two of Sandoval’s three home runs in his first three at-bats in Game 1 of the 2012 World Series, came off Detroit ace Justin Verlander in one of the greatest offensive displays in World Series history.
His personality would also fit the Red Sox. He’s a fun-loving guy, thus the nickname (Kung Fu Panda) who would feed (poor choice of words) off the byplay with Ortiz.