Baseball BeatOctober 10, 2005
The Greatest Game Ever Played
By Rich Lederer

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.


I saw this in the Jayson Stark article:

"We are now in our 101st baseball postseason. No other pitcher with as many wins as Clemens has ever made a relief appearance in a postseason game -- let alone won one."

Grover Cleveland Alexander (a/k/a "Pete;" The only ballplayer named for a sitting United States president and portrayed on film by a future one -- Ronald Reagan in The Winning Team) was 39 years old and had won about 324 games when he made a relief appearance in the 1926 World Series:

"The 1926 World Series, pitting the Cardinals against a powerful Yankee team featuring veteran bombers Babe Ruth and Bob Meusel and young guns Lou Gehrig and Tony Lazzeri, cast the Alexander legend in stone. Alex pitched complete-game wins in Games 2 and 6 before the climactic seventh game. Alex entered the game to relieve Jesse Haines in the seventh inning with bases loaded, two out, and the Cardinals hanging on to a 3-2 lead. He struck out Lazzeri, held the lead, and the Cards were champs."

The event was a key scene in the bio-pic and is memorialized on Pete's HoF plaque.

Now, it is true that Clemens has won 341 games, which is 17 more than Pete had at that point in his career, but give Pete some credit for missing parts of the 1919 and 1918 seasons because of service during WWI. He might have won 30 or 40 more games.

There was also Walter Johnson
, that makes two that Stark missed, and two of the immortals as well.

Finally, in 1924, with the shrewdest trades of his life, Griffith put together Washington's first pennant winner. Going 23-7 at age thirty-seven, Johnson was finally in a World Series. His performance against the Giants in the seventh game is one of baseball's favorite stories. Appearing in relief, two days after pitching a complete game, he held the Giants scoreless for four innings until Early McNeely's 12th-inning grounder deflected off a pebble, over Freddie Lindstrom's head, allowing Washington's winning run to score

While I think it was quite the exciting game because of the grand slams, I can't rank it as one of the best games I've ever seen. Why?

Because the Braves third base coach, even though he didn't know it at the time, gave the game away when he sent Adam LaRoche to his doom in the 7th. He had no business sending LaRoche, considering the ball was already on the way back to the infield as LaRoche got to third. LaRoche had slowed down to coast into third when he was waved around.

Also, it was so frustrating how Bobby Cox gave away two perfectly good outs by bunting. For example, the sixth inning - Hudson ground rule double, Furcal bunts. That one made a little sense, as it did move Hudson over to third. 11th inning - Furcal walks, Giles pops up bunt out.

That one blew my mind. Furcal can steal second anyway (and he did when Chipper was up next). A bunt would then move him to third, but a base hit would score the go ahead run.

I'm not even a Braves fan (in fact, I'm a Mets fan), but that move just had me tearing my hair out. I know hindsight is 20-20, but especially in extra innings, what are you doing wasting outs???