Brandon Belt stood in a walkway outside the visitors’ clubhouse at Nationals Park early Sunday morning and tried to process the historic significance of his last swing of a bat. Belt was still buzzing from adrenaline and the sugar-free Red Bull he said he downed before stepping to the plate in the 18th inning. Finally, he conceded with a smile: “I don’t know; I’m delirious.”
“I’m just trying to soak it all in,” Belt said. “This is awesome. This is a lot of fun.”
For much of the second half this season, while symptoms of the concussion he suffered in July lingered into September, it was doubtful that Belt would join the Giants in the playoffs.
In a moment of clarity after his 18th-inning homer decided the longest game in time in postseason history, Belt said that while he waited for the symptoms to go away, for the double vision to clear and his headaches to subside, it was for a chance at moments like Saturday night.
“When I wasn’t playing so much,” he said, “that’s kind of the stuff I thought about.”
And Belt this season had plenty of time to think, as injuries limited him to 61 games. On May 9, Dodgers left-hander Paul Maholm threw an inside pitch that hit Belt’s left hand, breaking his thumb. Belt returned to the Giants’ lineup on July 4. Less than three weeks later, an errant throw in batting practice struck Belt in the face, resulting in a concussion.
Belt attempted a return in early August, but he played in five games before the symptoms returned. He later admitted he wasn’t ready, that he may have written off some warning signs of a concussion as stemming from a cold. He did not play again until mid-September.
The waiting, Belt said, was not easy.
“At first when you have the concussion, it is scary; there’s not much you can do about it,” Belt said before the Giants’ 2-1 win over the Nationals on Saturday.
“You sit and wait for it to get better, and when you’re in that moment, it’s kind of like, ‘Is this ever going to get better?’ You don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel at first. It freaks you out a little bit.”
The light finally appeared in the form of a visit to Dr. Michael Collins, a Pittsburgh-based concussion specialist. Belt – experiencing blurry vision, dizziness and headaches – traveled to Pittsburgh in mid-August.
“He said basically that if we can correct the vision problems, everything else will fall into place,” Belt said.
Belt said he began doing exercises for his eyesight and inner-ear balance and quickly saw results. But after Belt addressed his health, the challenge remained of getting back to baseball speed. Ideally, he wanted two weeks of games before potentially playing in the postseason. When he finally returned on Sept. 17, he played in just 10 games before the season ended.
“Fortunately, I was in the (batting) cage quite a bit,” Belt said. “The coaches were helping me out quite a bit. We started to figure some stuff out.”
Belt went hitless in his first 12 plate appearances after his return. But in the Giants’ final series against the Padres, Belt went 6 for 12 with a home run and said that’s when “it all came together. … Even before that, I knew I was seeing the ball pretty well. I just couldn’t get my hands and my eyes to do exactly what I wanted.
“In the final series of the season, it all came together. I knew I was going to have a good chance of helping the team out in the postseason.”
It was around that point, manager Bruce Bochy said, that the Giants became convinced of that as well.
“He was going to be a little rusty, (but) our thoughts were it was worth the risk,” Bochy said of bringing Belt back. “We still had to get in (the playoffs), but we needed this guy.
“I think maybe around 25, 30 at-bats, you could see Brandon starting to get comfortable and seeing the ball a little bit better, and catching up with the fastball and slowing things down and not chasing off-speed pitches.”
When he came up in the 18th inning Saturday night, more than six hours after the first pitch of the game, Belt was 0 for 6. Facing right-hander Tanner Roark, Belt fell behind 0-2 before working the count back to full, fouling off two mid-90s fastballs. The eighth pitch of the at-bat was a fastball in, and Belt drove it into the right-field seats.
Belt dropped his bat immediately, a succinct flourish, but later said he didn’t remember doing so.
“It’s all a blur – I’m not kidding,” Belt said. “I saw that thing go out and started rounding the bases – I really didn’t know what was happening at that point.
“It was just a cool experience.”