A Rocket blast and an unexpected finish

2005 NLDS, Game 4: Astros 7, Braves 6 (18 innings)

Updated: December 14, 2009, 3:19 PM ET
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Chris BurkeAP Photo/Eric Gay

It wasn't just a game. It was a miniseries. It was 18 innings of October madness that made up Game 4 of the 2005 NLDS -- Astros 7, Braves 6, in 5 hours and 50 minutes of spectacular postseason theater.

So much to remember. So much to digest.

Who was the biggest hero? Was it Chris Burke, the rookie utility whiz who entered this game as a pinch-runner and then, eight innings later, had his own little Joe Carter moment -- the incomprehensible 18th-inning walk-off homer that finally ended this game and clinched this series?

Was it Brad Ausmus -- the official answer to the trivia question, "Who had the very lowest slugging percentage of any player in the '00s?" -- who miraculously tied this game with a shocking home run with two outs in the ninth inning?

Was it Lance Berkman, whose eighth-inning grand slam changed everything -- turned a five-run Braves lead into a one-run heart-thumper and transformed a blowout into one of the most indelible October baseball games of all time?

Well, it could have been any of them. Easily. But it wasn't. So you know this had to be one amazing ballgame when men who did what they did would merely go down as the best supporting actors.

But that's what they were, because this was a day that turned into Roger Clemens' most magical moment as an Astro -- in a game he didn't even start.

All the Rocket did in this game was (a) come roaring out of the bullpen in the 15th inning, (b) make his first relief appearance in 21 years, (c) make his first pinch-hitting appearance ever, (d) become the first 344-game winner to do a cameo postseason bullpen gig in 81 years (since Walter Johnson did it in the 1924 World Series), (e) spin three one-hit innings of shutout, 44-pitch relief on short rest and (f) become the (what else?) winning pitcher of this classic.

Whatever may have happened since to tarnish Clemens' legend, this was a day that seemed to launch his legend to a whole new stratum. But one thing I've always wondered is this: With the Astros essentially out of pitchers and position players, how long would he have kept going if Chris Burke hadn't done his Mazeroski act?

"He might have thrown 10 [or] 20 innings," the Rocket's manager, Phil Garner, said that day. "And I'm [being] honest with you when I say that."

Too bad the headlines never did read "ASTROS WIN IN 35TH AS CLEMENS GOES 20." But it doesn't matter. Of all the remarkable postseason games I witnessed in the '00s, this was the classic that won't leave my memory banks.
--Jayson Stark