The Greatest Game Ever Played
I may be guilty of spewing hyperbole here but yesterday's Atlanta Braves-Houston Astros game ranks among the greatest ever played in the postseason.
Was it better than Bill Mazeroski's or Joe Carter's World Series-winning, walk-off home runs? Or Carlton Fisk's or Kirk Gibson's dramatic game-winning homers? How 'bout Don Larsen's perfect game? What about Babe Ruth's "called shot" against the Cubs? Have I forgotten Willie Mays' over-the-shoulder catch or Bill Buckner's non-catch?
Well, I know one thing--if it wasn't the best, it was certainly the longest. Since the first World Series in 1903, no postseason game had ever lasted 17 innings until the Braves and Astros did the record one better on Sunday by battling for 18 frames in a five-hour and fifty-minute marathon that featured 553 pitches. But it wasn't the length in and of itself that made this game so special.
This contest was one for the books because of what took place between the chalk lines. We're talking quantity and quality of play here.
Tim Hudson and the visiting Braves were a slight favorite over Brandon Backe and the Astros to even up the series and take it back to Atlanta for a fifth and decisive game. Behind Adam LaRoche's third-inning grand slam, the Braves had what appeared to be an almost insurmountable 6-1 lead as the game headed into the home half of the eighth.
With the bases loaded and relief pitcher Kyle Farnsworth now on the mound, Lance Berkman poked a fastball on the outside edge of the plate over the left-field wall to cut the deficit to just one. The opposite-field homer marked the first time in the history of baseball that two grand slams were hit in the same postseason game. Pretty special, huh? If nothing else, it sure got my attention. I put down my remote control and decided right then and there that I was going to forget about the pro football games and watch every pitch from that point on.
My willpower paid off an inning later when Brad Ausmus, of all people, smoked another Farnsworth heater over the outstretched glove of the leaping Andruw Jones and the yellow-painted line on the wall in left-center field with two outs in the ninth to tie the game 6-6.
The pitching dominated the extra innings as neither side scored a run through 17. The Braves and Astros, in fact, mustered just five hits. It felt as if the game was being played inside the Astrodome rather than Minute Maid Park. Houston's relief pitchers--Chad Qualls, Brad Lidge, Dan Wheeler, and Roger Clemens. . .yes, that Roger Clemens--struck out 12 batters after the ninth inning. Clemens was going on two days' rest and just so happened to be the last available pitcher for the Astros unless one wanted to count Andy Pettitte, who apparently wasn't even at the ballpark; Roy Oswalt, who went 7 1/3 innings the day before; or Jason Lane, the team's right-fielder who was the winning pitcher for USC in the NCAA championship game against Arizona State in 1998.
Clemens, making just the second relief appearance of his career and the first since his rookie year in 1984, retired nine of the 11 batters he faced. The Rocket was pitching on fumes--and rather effectively I might add. He had entered the game as a pinch hitter for Wheeler in the bottom of the 15th and promptly advanced Craig Biggio to second with a sacrifice bunt. Chris Burke, who made his way into the game as a pinch runner for Berkman in the tenth (a move that I would not have made had I been in manager Phil Garner's shoes, which would be impossible given that I wear a size 13), walked. With runners on first and second, Morgan Ensberg, Lane's college teammate at USC, grounded into a 6-4-3 double play to end what was the best opportunity for either team to score in the extra innings--if you exclude Luke Scott's blast down the left-field line that sliced just left of the foul pole by inches in the tenth inning.
Clemens struck out to lead off the home half of the 18th. Without sifting through Retrosheet, I think it is pretty safe to say that Roger has never batted in the 18th inning before Sunday. Clemens, in fact, hasn't pitched more than 10 innings in a game and when he was used in relief it was for the fifth and sixth innings when the Oakland A's were beating the Red Sox 6-0.
Up to the plate stepped Burke, a highly regarded player out of the University of Tennessee and in the Astros minor league system but a disappointment in his rookie season with Houston. Burke deposited a 2-0 pitch from Joey Devine, four months removed from North Carolina State University, into the left-field stands to give the Astros the 7-6 victory and the right to meet the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, which starts Wednesday night at Busch Stadium. It will be the first NLCS rematch since Pittsburgh and Atlanta played in 1991-92.
The Redbirds beat Clemens in Game Seven last October, denying the Astros their first World Series appearance. Will St. Louis beat their divisional rivals once again or is this the year that Houston finally goes all the way? I know I am conflicted. I picked the Cardinals to win the World Series before the year began, then hedged my bet a week ago by suggesting that the Astros were a good choice behind the three-headed monster of Clemens, Oswalt, and Pettitte to win it all.
Bryan and I will offer our insights into the NLDS and the ALDS on Tuesday. But first things first. The Chicago White Sox and the rest of the baseball world will be watching the New York Yankees take on the Los Angeles Angels tonight in Game Five of the ALDS in the greatest game ever played.