Astros' amazing run rolls on

ATLANTA -- They don't know where this is leading. They don't even know who's pitching Wednesday.

But for one night, it didn't matter to the Houston Astros what might await them over the horizon. This was a night to celebrate a poetic stop on an improbable journey down a 43-year-long highway.

They ended the Atlanta Braves' season Monday night with a 12-3 thumping in Game 5 of a wild National League Division Series. But there was so much more to this story than that.

The Braves have lived too many nights like this. But for the Astros, there has never been a night like this.

More than 15,000 nights in the life of the franchise, and none of them ended with grown men spritzing champagne after a postseason series that turned out right for a change.

It took them four decades, eight trips to the playoffs and seven games -- spread out over a quarter-century -- where they had a chance to open that champagne if they won. But finally, on a drizzly Monday night in Atlanta, in a stadium where so many of their October adventures turned so ugly, the Houston Astros won themselves a series.

And so, as the clock ticked toward midnight, the ultimate Astro, Jeff Bagwell, finally got to stand in one of those October locker rooms he'd watched so many other players stand in. It was worth the wait.

All around him, Astros much younger than him were turning this room into a frat party. But Jeff Bagwell just stood in one corner, a towel over his shoulder, a champagne bottle in his right hand, and searched for the word that described this feeling best.

"I guess the word is satisfaction," said Bagwell, a man who had lived, and led, through 13 previous Astros seasons -- seasons that didn't end this way. "It's a little bit of satisfaction, because this is what you play for. Fourteen years in this organization, and to finally get a chance to do this -- it's very satisfying."

How did they ever get here? Think about that.

Nine weeks ago, they were done. Finished. History. Thinking long and hard about whether to deal off a few veteran spare parts.

When these Astros woke up on the morning of Aug. 15, they were four games under .500 and trailing six different teams in the wild-card race. Yeah, six. Including a Mets team the Astros would wind up beating by 21 games.

This outfit was also tied with a seventh team, the Reds -- and lagging seven games behind a Cubs juggernaut that the world kept expecting to grab the postseason steering wheel. It was no formula for How To Win Your First Playoff Series Ever. That's for sure.

"I've got to admit," said manager Phil Garner, on a night when the second-guessers were free to descend on the other clubhouse, "I was probably within a game or two of where I would have said (to the front office), 'I don't know if this is gonna work. I don't know if (making the playoffs) is a very likely scenario.' "

Likely? Sheesh, the Devil Rays winning the AL East looked more likely than this.

So how the heck did they ever get here?

In the history of baseball, no team had ever trailed six teams, at that late a date on the calendar, and roared back to play a postseason game, let alone win a postseason series. But this team did.

"I know one thing," chuckled Lance Berkman. "If you'd asked me, on Aug. 14, if I'd be standing here now, talking to you about this, I'd have said: 'Uh, I don't think so.' I thought I'd have been hunting or something."

Instead, though, the only hunting these guys did was to hunt down the Phillies and Marlins and Padres. Then, on the final weekend of the season, they shot down the Cubs and Giants. And poof -- here they were.

They could have ended this series in three games. They should have ended it in four, at the very least. But they blew an eighth-inning lead in Game 2 and blew a sixth-inning lead in Game 4. So somehow, even though that Braves team they were playing had led for only four innings all series, they found themselves in the sky Sunday night, flying through the blackness to await a Game 5 they didn't want to play.

"Hey, we're the Astros," laughed Craig Biggio. "Once again, the Astros never do anything easy."

Even this game -- which ended up as the most lopsided win-or-go-home postseason game since Game 7 of the 1985 World Series (Royals 11, Cardinals 0) -- was no day at Six Flags most of the way.

Roy Oswalt, starting on three days' rest for the second time in his career, hit the wall at 90 pitches, served up two gopherballs to his final six hitters and barely made it through the fifth inning.

A 3-0 Astros lead had shrunk to 3-2 when Oswalt left. And 54,068 stoked occupants of Turner Field thought they smelled a replay of Sunday's stunning meltdown by the shaky Houston bullpen.

Au contraire. This time, off to the rescue rode Carlos Beltran -- whose acquisition in June was intended as a management manifesto on just how critical a season this was in the life of the franchise.

Beltran had already homered three times in this series and once in this game when he stepped to the plate to lead off the sixth. Then he skipped Jaret Wright's fifth pitch of the inning off the top of the right-field fence for maybe the most pivotal homer in Astros history. And this game was never the same.

"That was such a big home run," Biggio said. "They'd just narrowed the score to 3-2. The crowd was back into it. You've got like 52,000 on their feet. And then the first guy comes up there the next inning and hits one out? Wow. I wouldn't say he crushed it. But just far enough."

Yeah, exactly like his team. Just far enough.

After that, the storylines seemed to fall together perfectly, like the final chapter of an epic novel.

There was Biggio -- a .130 hitter in his postseason career before this year -- smoking a two-out, two-strike RBI single in the seventh to widen the lead to 5-2. Biggio's six hits in the last two games were one fewer than he'd had in his entire postseason career before this year (7 for 54).

And two hitters later, there was Bagwell -- .174 with zero homers in 14 postseason games before this October -- pounding his second home run of this series into the left-field bleachers, to make it 8-2.

Biggio and Bagwell. They got as many hits (15) just in this series as they'd gotten in their four previous trips to October combined. They were 15-for-100, with no homers and five RBI, in all those other years. They went 15-for-42, with three homers and nine RBI, against the Braves.

Biggio and Bagwell. Playing with an ache in their heart on the night after their friend and former teammate, Ken Caminiti, died of a heart attack in a Bronx hotel hundreds of miles away.

Biggio and Bagwell. For all those years, they were painted as the symbols of the Astros' October heartbreaks. But Monday, they were finally the symbols of a different kind of October story.

Asked if he felt a sense of relief in that, Biggio replied: "I don't know if relief is the right word. It's just a great feeling. This is not a two-man show here. It's a team. That's the feeling. It's just a tremendous feeling to be part of a true team. And that's what we are."

"What happened in the past -- that's obviously something people made a big deal about," Bagwell said, "and rightfully so. We didn't win, and Craig and I didn't hit. Now we've gone somewhere we've never gone, and Craig and I did hit. But around here, it's not about two guys. It's about 25 guys. This has been the biggest team effort I've ever been a part of."

It could never have happened, obviously, without Beltran, with his 23 homers in 70 games. And his 28 stolen bases in 28 tries. And his top-of-the-line defense in center. And his grand Division Series finale, in which he joined Yogi Berra, Jim Thome, Jason Giambi and Troy O'Leary as the only men in history to have a multihomer game in a win-or-go-home postseason game.

It could never have happened without Berkman or Jeff Kent, either, of course. Or the catcher who prepares like a manager, Brad Ausmus.

It could never have happened if young arms like Brandon Backe and Chad Qualls hadn't dropped out of the sky to plug holes in an injury-ravaged pitching staff.

It could never have happened if Jose Vizcaino hadn't risen up to become a professional everyday shortstop down the stretch after Adam Everett fractured his ulna bone.

And clearly, it could never have happened if Andy Pettitte hadn't signed up last winter -- and Roger Clemens hadn't found the whole darned scene so enticing that he couldn't stay retired for 30 seconds.

And finally, it never, ever, ever could have happened if Garner hadn't taken a surprising July call on his cell phone in the middle of his granddaughter's birthday party -- and decided he wouldn't mind taking a shot at managing this crew.

"I don't know what I'd have said," Garner said Monday, "if they'd told me when they called me that, 'Hey, you're going have a bunch of injuries.' And if they'd said, 'Oh by the way, Andy Pettitte -- you won't have him anymore. And Wade Miller -- you won't have him, either. And oh by the way, you know your starting shortstop? You're not going to have him the last six weeks.'

"If they'd told me all that when they offered me the job," Garner confessed, "I might have said, 'You know, this might not be such a good idea.' "

But in the end, all of that craziness just made Monday that much cooler -- because this team somehow went from No Way to Find A Way, against all odds, all logic, all semblance of common sense.

"You know," Garner said, "there are two things about veterans -- one good and one that can be bad. One is, you don't have to teach them how to play. But two is, they understand reality. So when you've got six clubs you've got to climb over in the middle of August and you're not playing real good, I could give all the Knute Rockne speeches in the world. And they've all been there, done that, so they know the real deal.

"But every one of our veterans kept playing, and wouldn't slow up -- not even an inch. Every one of them, to a man, locked in and played good. And they took the young kids with them and showed real leadership. And what you see here is the result of that."

What you see here is actually one of the most amazing and miraculous comeback stories in the history of the whole sport. So it's time we all took a day to ruminate on that and realize what we've just seen here.

Yeah, the Cardinals are lurking around the corner. And yeah, it could be days before the Astros sort out their pitching and get Clemens and Oswalt back on the mound. And yeah, there's no guarantee this incredible tale will have a happy ending.

But for one night, that didn't matter to the Houston Astros -- a team that wasn't ready Monday to start thinking about those 105-game winners from St. Louis.

"The Cardinals," Garner yelped, when someone asked him about his plans for the next round. "Now why'd you have to hit me with that tonight? Let me drink some more champagne. Then I'll worry about the Cardinals. But tonight, let's enjoy what we just did."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.