One for the ages: Game 4 has it all
Astros advance to NLCS in greatest game of club's history
HOUSTON -- "It's just the best," a champagne-drenched Roger Clemens said when asked where Sunday's unbelievable 18-inning National League Division Series clincher ranked in his mind. "That was a classic. I want to watch the tape of that one some day, because that was just one of the most amazing games any of us will ever see."
That might be an understatement.
The longest postseason game in Major League Baseball history had it all: grand slams by Atlanta's Adam LaRoche and Houston's Lance Berkman and a game-tying home run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth by Houston's Brad Ausmus.
It had Clemens making his first relief appearance since July 18, 1984, and his first career pinch-hit appearance. Houston backup catcher Raul Chavez played first base for the first time in his career and starting catcher Ausmus played some first base, then moved back to catcher when Clemens came in the game.
Houston manager Phil Garner used every player on the roster except pitcher Andy Pettitte, who would have started a Game 5, and Game 3 starter Roy Oswalt. Atlanta manager Bobby Cox used all but three players.
The sellout crowd of 43,413 saw Houston come back from a 6-1 eighth-inning deficit to win, 7-6. They saw 90 years on this earth and 42 years of Major League experience do battle when the 43-year-old Clemens faced 47-year-old Julio Franco.
When it finally ended, they saw Houston rookie Chris Burke drill a walk-off home run with one out in the 18th inning to send the Astros to the National League Championship Series for the second year in a row against the St. Louis Cardinals.
"It took every single guy we had, it took every single ounce of energy we had," Houston closer Brad Lidge said. "That's why it feels so good right now. It's just incredible. When you win a game like this, you know you've put everything on the line, that's why it feels great."
Garner has been saying all year everybody on the roster must contribute if the Astros were going to succeed, but we never knew he meant it literally. Because of all the pitching changes, pinch-hitters and double-switches, Garner ran out of position players by the 13th inning.
"I was looking down the bench and I was looking at a lot of guys with tennis shoes on," Astros third baseman Morgan Ensberg said. "We had played every single guy. I wanted to let Phil know I could probably come from down under to throw a couple of innings if they need it. That's where we were coming from."
The players Garner had left had enough resiliency and character to finish the job.
Houston's bullpen held the Braves to one run during the final 13 2/3 innings. The NL East Division champions stranded 18 baserunners.
"It was a valiant effort that came up short," Atlanta pitcher John Smoltz said. "You don't prepare to end your season like this. When you're put in this position, you have either one of two feelings -- gut-wrenching or ecstasy, there's no in-between. There's nothing else you can feel."
The Braves missed a chance to score in the seventh when Adam LaRoche was thrown out at the plate thanks to a fine relay by the Astros.
"It was frustrating, and I've said it before, if I knew we were going to lose in the first round, I'd rather not be in the playoffs at all," LaRoche said. "There's nothing worse than having to go home with a loss. That's about as high and low as you can get."
Both sides rode the emotional roller coaster in this draining game. The Astros, exhausted but ecstatic in having clinched the series, three games to one, understood the rare magic of this moment and savored it in a raucous celebration in the clubhouse.
"I think maybe this game was a perfect example of our entire season," Ensberg said. "That battle to come back, that grind. Then all of a sudden you've got Rocket going out to the bullpen to get ready, and then coming in and getting a sacrifice bunt. He's just a flat-out gamer."
Burke put it even better: "He's a warrior with a heart as big as the stadium."
Clemens had gone to Garner after the Astros had tied the game in the ninth.
"He said he was A-OK," Garner said. "I said, 'At some point in the game, we may have to use you.' We knew a few innings ahead of time we were going to have to go with it."
The Rocket was literally the last man in the bullpen. He delivered a sacrifice bunt in the 15th in a pinch-hit appearance, then stayed in the game for the final three innings.
|"I'm so glad to be here and be a part of this. It's been an honor to play with these guys, and a game like this makes it all the more special. This is one you never forget."|
|-- Roger Clemens|
Burke, the man of the hour, was soaked from head to toe by bubbly-pouring teammates. The rookie said he was thinking Atlanta reliever Joey Devine might try to come inside after falling behind, 1-0. Sure enough, Burke got a belt-high fastball inside and sent it soaring into the Crawford Boxes above the left-field fence.
"Chris Burke talks about these situations all the time, about how he wants to be in these situations. He will gladly fail in these situations just to get opportunities to have them," Ensberg said. "He's a guy that's not afraid to lose, a guy who's just a winner."
The home run trot was a blur. Burke said he will always remember "smacking five with Chavez, and just the roar of the crowd. Those guys, I thought about it the inning before, they've been giving you their hearts for six hours."
Lidge leaped over the dugout rail and ran toward home plate, with his teammates racing to join him.
"I've never seen anything like this," Lidge said. "Just sitting there and watching this was just amazing, it kept going on and on, it felt like we were on the edge of our seats forever, and we were, really."
This one was simply the greatest Houston playoff game in postseason history. Better than the Jeff Kent walk-off against St. Louis in Game 5 of the NLCS last year. Better than the 16-inning loss to the New York Mets in Game 6 of the 1986 NLCS.
This one had everything.
"I'm so glad to be here and be a part of this," Clemens said. "It's been an honor to play with these guys, and a game like this makes it all the more special. This is one you never forget."
A teammate poured another bottle of champagne over The Rocket.
"There can't be any champagne left," Clemens said.
Not on this night. The Astros used all they had.
Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.