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10/10/05 1:02 PM ET

Press Row: Going to the limit

What is it with the Astros and extra-inning playoff games?

The Astros-Braves thriller on Sunday set a Major League record by going 18 innings -- eclipsing the previous mark of 16 set by, you guessed it, the Astros in 1986. Of course, Houston fans don't have a pleasant memory of that, as the Mets beat them in that Game 6 to move on to the World Series against the Red Sox and a youngster by the name of Roger Clemens.

On Sunday, Clemens was the winning pitcher for the Astros, coming back on just two days of rest to work the final three innings.

It just adds to the legend of Clemens, says Richard Justice of The Houston Chronicle.

"Years from now when Clemens walks through the doors of the Hall of Fame with 300-plus victories and at least seven Cy Young Awards, they'll remember this day, too.

"They'll remember he pitched three innings of shutout relief and batted twice. His fastball was consistently clocked at 94 mph. He had a better split-finger pitch than he'd had in Atlanta."

Heroics are nothing new for Clemens, but what about Chris Burke, who will have a hard time topping his game-winning home run?

Brian McTaggart of The Houston Chronicle writes that Burke thought about being the hero earlier in the game.

"Chris Burke could only envision what it was going to feel like crossing home plate and scoring one of the biggest runs in Astros history. He wondered how his teammates would react and how good the champagne would taste.

"This occurred while Burke was standing on second base in the 10th inning of Sunday's Game 4 of the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves, having just entered the game as a pinch runner. The way Burke finally did score the winning run came in a much more dramatic fashion than even he could have imagined. And it was something only a handful of players in Major League history have experienced.

"It was an unlikely home run in what has been an unpredictable rookie season for Burke, the Astros' first-round draft choice in 2001. With Craig Biggio moving back from the outfield to second base, Burke was turned into an outfielder during Spring Training and made the team on Opening Day. He was sent to Class AAA Round Rock only a month into the season but was back for good June 1. Burke made the most of his starts in left field, usually against lefthanders.

"When Lance Berkman doubled with two outs in the 10th on Sunday, Burke came in as a pinch runner. He stayed in the game in center and eventually moved to left, going 0-for-1 with a walk before his homer."

Astros fans weren't just found at Minute Maid Park on Sunday either as The Houston Chronicle pointed out. Fans coming out of Reliant Stadium, where the Houston Texans played also made their way to be part of the action.

"Ruben Alaniz, 38, was among the crowd of fans gathered outside Minute Maid Park after the victory -- even though he had gone to the Houston Texans game.

"His friends and family waited outside Reliant Stadium, watching the Astros game on television. He joined them afterward to watch the rest of the baseball game -- all three hours of it."

Meanwhile, things were far less joyous for the Braves, who have seen this happen far too many times before. This was their fourth straight first-round exit and, as Dave O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution writes, it was painful for the players to swallow this one.

"'There's nothing worse,' said Braves first baseman Adam LaRoche, whose third-inning grand slam provided a 4-0 lead that grew to 6-1 before closer Kyle Farnsworth gave it all back on home runs in the eighth and ninth innings.

"'I've said it before -- if I would have known we were going to lose in the first round, I'd rather not even be in the playoffs at all,' LaRoche said.

"'I've lost my share of heartbreakers over the years, but this is certainly at the top of the heap,' said Chipper Jones."

Farnsworth was an unlikely goat, considering the right-hander had been 10-for-10 in save opportunities since coming to Atlanta on July 31. It left veteran columnist Terrence Moore searching for answers.

"Again," Moore writes. "If you're keeping track, that's 14 straight trips to the playoffs, a world championship a decade ago and five first-round exits during the past six years, including four in a row and two straight to the Houston Astros.

"None of this makes sense for a lot of reasons. For instance: The Braves have collapsed by Halloween with a bunch of veteran teams, and now they've done so with a roster of eight rookies. They've had Cy Glavine, Cy Maddux and Cy Smoltz, but the results remained ugly. They've even tried to work with Cy Smoltz from the bullpen. No luck. In fact, Cy Smoltz, otherwise known as John Smoltz, was brought back to start this season with October in mind. Even so, the Braves just lost three of four playoff games to another inferior bunch.

"You know the rest. From Kirby Puckett to Jim Leyritz to Carlos Beltran, The Collapse always happens for the Braves of October. This time, there was that Astros' grand slam in the eighth, and then there was that solo homer in the ninth to send this thing into extra innings forever.

"Later, after the Braves' relievers actually showed a pulse, the Braves' hitters died. They did the impossible by stranding 18 runners on the base, and as LaRoche added with a heavy sigh, "It was like Russian Roulette giving them that many chances.

"Across the way, Andruw Jones sat for the longest in solitude by his locker. I've known the great Braves' center fielder since his rookie year, and I've never witnessed such anguish on his face."

Meanwhile, with a win over the Angels on Sunday, the Yankees did what the Braves could not do -- force a Game 5. Their 3-2 win over the Angels means the two teams will face each other in a decisive game Monday night in Orange County.

New York manager Joe Torre went to closer Mariano Rivera for two innings on Sunday to close things out and now the Yankees look ahead, as Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News writes.

"When it was over they kept asking Rivera about Game 5, which means they wanted to make sure he had something left for tonight.

"'Tomorrow? We have to go there and do it,' Mo Rivera said in the interview room. 'Don't worry, I'll be ready for tomorrow.'

"He got his six outs last night. The last came after it was him against Vlad Guerrero. Rivera won this time. The Yankees won when they had to win. Mike Mussina against Bartolo Colon tonight. The Yankees didn't play to win the World Series last night. They played not to let the other guys come into Yankee Stadium and take their season. They played to get on the plane."

The Yankees send Mike Mussina to the mound and as New York Post writer Mark Hale points out, he's a good one to have going in these situations.

"That's because on both occasions in which Mussina has pitched in a must-win playoff game for the Yankees, he has not allowed a run.

"With Yankees winning, 3-2, to even the series in Game 4 last night, Mussina will be on the hill tonight for the deciding fifth game against the Angels. Twice in his Yankee career, Mussina has pitched in a must-win playoff game, and he has been exceptional both times.

"The first came four years ago, also in the ALDS, against Oakland in Game 3. With the Yankees trailing 2-0 in the series, Mussina outdueled Barry Zito in a 1-0 win, firing seven shutout innings. Mussina not only kept the Yankees alive that night, but the Yanks eventually won the series.

"The other time Mussina pitched in a must-win postseason game for the Yankees came when he entered out of the bullpen in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS against the Red Sox. Relieving Roger Clemens, Mussina worked out of a no-out first-and-third jam and tossed three crucial shutout innings -- and again, the Yankees won the game and thus the series.

"That's 10 shutout innings in two back-to-the-wall playoff outings for Mussina since he signed with the Yankees following the 2001 season."

And while that bodes well for their chances to move onto the League Championship Series, Yankees fans made sure if Sunday was Bernie Williams final game in Yankee Stadium, it'll be one he remembers, as Sam Borden of the Daily News reports.

"That may be true, but it's very likely that this is Williams' final season in pinstripes whether or not his career continues. The 37-year-old's contract is up after this season, so last night could have been his final game at the Stadium as a Yankee.

"That's why the crowd gave him a standing ovation before every at-bat and begged for a curtain call after he flied out in the eighth."

The Angels went with John Lackey as their starter in Game 4 after Jarrod Washburn was felled by an illness, the Los Angeles Daily News reported.

"Jarrod Washburn was scratched from his scheduled Game 4 start Sunday because of a high fever and throat infection, something he came down with Saturday night.

"Angels manager Mike Scioscia informed John Lackey and Ervin Santana Saturday to be ready for Sunday in case Washburn didn't improve, ultimately deciding on Lackey after Washburn was still sick Sunday morning.

"'He's extremely disappointed,' Scioscia said of Washburn. 'If you know Jarrod, it takes something extremely significant to keep him out of any start, let alone this one.'

"Bartolo Colon flew to Southern California on Saturday night to prepare for a potential Game 5 in Anaheim, but he had not yet left when the Angels learned about Washburn. He wasn't a consideration for Game 4 because 'he needs the time,' according to Scioscia.

"He'll be fresher and rested for Game 5," Scioscia said of Colon, who's battled lower back stiffness the past few weeks. "He's much better off in the slot we have him right now, even though (Sunday) was normal rest, the extra day could be important for Bart."

And let's not forget about the White Sox. The Pale Hose are at home in Chicago waiting for either the Yanks or Angels to fly to the Windy City without any rest for Game 1 on Tuesday.

As The Chicago Tribune's Phil Rogers points out, the biggest winner on Sunday night was the White Sox: "Whoever faces the White Sox on Tuesday night at U.S. Cellular Field will be worn thin by the demands of getting there.

"Both teams are using their Game 1 starters Monday, which means that either Mike Mussina or Bartolo Colon would be available to start only once on regular rest in a seven-game ALCS.

"Their bullpens aren't going to be in great shape, either, as the tight game Sunday night and another one Monday night could force managers to take some desperate steps.

"Even Randy Johnson is considered to be available Monday out of the bullpen for the Yankees. If he did have to come in for Mussina, it could leave manager Joe Torre starting rookie Chien-Ming Wang and journeyman Aaron Small in the first two games in Chicago."

Steve Gilbert is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.