It's going to be a difficult couple of weeks for the Braves now. That long loss Sunday isn't going to wash away real quickly, not with all the chances they had in extra innings and after they had what seemed to be a pretty comfortable lead. It's going to weigh on them because it will be another winter when they're judged by what they didn't do.

Give the Astros all the credit. They came from way back. There's a lot of will to win there. Those guys were, what, 15 games out in May? And now they're in the NLCS. They deserve to be there. They didn't cut any corners.

The real story is what they did, with the unexpected hero in [Chris] Burke and with Roger [Clemens] pitching in relief like that. That's cool. I know when you get into a regular-season game that goes longer than 15 or 16 innings, you start asking yourself, "Okay, when do I get in this game?" and "How am I going to get in?" What Clemens did, pinch-hitting and sacrificing even before he pitched, how cool was that? He probably loved it. You probably don't think about it or even want to do it in the postseason. But now that he got through it OK and they won, he must be proud.

And I don't mean to minimize what the Astros did. It's not like it was the Braves' fault and the Astros had nothing do with it. The Braves bullpen did give it up Saturday night and Sunday, but it was the Astros who got the hits. But I do think it's fair to say most of the country was looking at this series as the Braves not getting it done again, rather than the Astros doing a good job.

And then the Astros go out and win it in 18. That's huge because now they didn't use Andy Pettitte twice in the Division Series and he's ready to face the Cardinals. He can beat the Cardinals. The way he's pitching, he can beat any team.

So give the Astros credit, they're giving themselves every chance.

And don't condemn the Braves. They went to the limit with a lot of unproven talent.

The bullpen did let them down. Their 'pen wasn't a strong point in the regular season, but it did the job most of the time. With Hudson going deep into his start in Game 1 and Jorge Sosa not getting them deep in Game 3, Bobby [Cox] had to go to bullpen earlier than he wanted. And then Sunday, they were pretty good in extra innings.

But overall, you have to be impressed by how the Astros seized the opportunity. You put together a four-run rally in the seventh inning of a tight playoff game like they did Saturday and then come back and do what they did Sunday, that's asserting yourself. They wanted it. You feel good for them.

But Cox is one of the great men in the game. And I know he aches inside. I like Bobby a lot and feel for him. I know how much he wants to win. He put the players in the proper places, and that's as much as he can do. It must be killing him to have a game like that end your season.

But you know he'll be back next year with a very competitive team. They'll probably be good enough to finish second ... to the New York Mets.