Amazing moments from a genuine classic

HOUSTON -- So what will they tell their grandchildren about the longest postseason game ever played?

Will they start with the final, unlikely hero -- a semi-anonymous extra man named Chris Burke -- the pinch-runner who wound up hitting the Aaron Boone-esque home run that ended a series for one team and a season for another?

Or will they start with the home run that tied this game -- with two outs in the ninth inning, of course -- a home run that was gone by about half an inch, a home run launched by a catcher (Brad Ausmus) who had hit three homers all year?

Will they talk about the second grand slam of the first two-slam game in October history -- the eighth-inning Lance Berkman shot that helped transform a blowout into one of the most unforgettable baseball games ever played?

Or will they simply talk about how drained they were from playing nearly six hours of baseball -- from playing 18 grueling innings, not knowing whether there was a game tomorrow, not knowing when they'd get to eat again?

When the Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves work up the strength some day to tell tales of the Game 4 epic that ended their National League Division Series on Sunday, they won't know where to start. They can't possibly know where to start. It was all too much to absorb. Way too much.

But here is where we would start if we were them:

With The Rocket.

Long after everyone in attendance forgets the score of this game (Astros 7, Braves 6 -- in case you already have), they will remember the sight of a 341-game winner sitting in the bullpen, all alone, waiting for his moment.

They will remember the chills that reverberated from their toes to their armpits in the top of the 15th inning, as the great Roger Clemens arose to warm up -- for his first relief appearance in 21 years.

They will remember Clemens sprinting out of the bullpen to the dugout in the middle of the 15th, and the way their ears hurt from the pandemonium that sight unleashed.

They will remember Clemens stomping toward home plate to make the (gulp) first pinch-hitting appearance of his entire career -- all 286 years of it -- because there was literally no one left to pitch or hit.

And they will remember the Rocket finding yet one more breathtaking exploit to add to his seemingly limitless legend -- by spinning three astonishing innings of one-hit, four-strikeout, 44-pitch relief until he wound up as (what else?) the winning pitcher.

"He might have thrown 10, 20 innings -- and I'm honest with you when I say that," said Houston's Phil Garner, a man who managed with his hair, cap and spikes on fire all afternoon long. "I think he was prepared to do whatever it took. And that's the way the man is. I've never seen anybody like him. He's amazing."

You would need to have a long memory, or be a voracious baseball historian, to recall the only slice of postseason life that compares with this one. It occurred 81 years ago, when a 377-game winner named Walter Johnson emerged from the bullpen to pitch the ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th innings in the seventh game of the only World Series the Washington Senators would ever win.

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.

It was a feat that took your breath away about 50 times -- even if you were watching from the other dugout.

"This has got to rank right up there with anything he's ever done," said the Braves' ever-classy John Smoltz. "Look, we've all come back on three days' rest before. But he's forty-three."

He's 43, all right. But this was not one of those days where anyone was allowed to count their ages, their batting averages or the number of runners they'd left on base. It was one of those days that summed up the beauty of October -- because all that mattered was survival.

So Phil Garner burned through 23 of his 25 players (everyone but Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt), tying the all-time record for a postseason game. He was out of position players by the 13th inning. He was out of relief pitchers when he sent Dan Wheeler in to work the top of the 13th.

Which meant that if this game kept on going, Garner's next move was going to be one that would put a stamp on this game in indelible ink.

Oswalt had pitched the day before. Pettitte had to start Monday if there was a Monday. So this one was coming down to the Rocket.

It was about the eighth inning, Garner said, when Clemens walked to the end of the dugout and announced, "I'm ready to go." But Clemens had already begun gathering himself for this moment.

"You know, when it got late, Phil looked at me," the Rocket reported. "There's been three or four times throughout the year he asked me how I felt (if) I was swinging the bat or if I got my spikes handy. I didn't think he was serious, and he probably wasn't. But the look that he gave me this time was very serious. There was no kidding around with it. And so I got out to the bullpen."

It wasn't long before there wasn't a single other pitcher left out there. Not one. They'd all pitched. So "next thing I know," Clemens said, "I'm out there by myself. Not a lot to do -- flick seeds, chew gum, talk to the fans. That's about all there was to do."

But soon he was up stretching. And then throwing softly. And then warming up seriously.

And then heading for the plate to lay down a pinch sacrifice bunt. And then mowing down Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles in the 17th, after Brian Jordan's one-out double. And generally making it clear he would stay out there until the 30th inning, or until somebody found a way to win. Whichever came first.

"I'm trying to continue to keep that fire in my belly," Clemens said. "It's games like this that can just rekindle that."

Then again, it's games like this that rekindle the baseball love affair inside the belly of every fan alive.

Because as powerful as Clemens' role in this drama was, there was so much more.

There was Braves starter Tim Hudson, coming back on short rest to throw seven sensational innings and leaving with a 6-1 lead.

There was Atlanta's Adam LaRoche, becoming the first son of a former major leaguer (in his case, of ex-pitcher Dave LaRoche) to hit a postseason grand slam.

There was Berkman, trumping that slam with one of his own -- off Braves closer Kyle Farnsworth in the eighth -- and thinking as he rounded the bases, a five-run lead down to just one: "Now we've got a chance."

There was Ausmus, a man who hit as many home runs after the All-Star break (two) as the Marlins' pitching staff, becoming just the seventh player in history to tie a postseason game with a home run with two outs in the ninth. And afterward, he didn't sound ready to believe he would be remembered as clearly as the other names on that list -- Tino Martinez, Scott Brosius, Jim Leyritz, etc. ("We'll see," he laughed. "Come talk to me in 20 years.")

There was the much-maligned Atlanta bullpen, twirling 8 1/3 innings of one-hit, zero-run relief between Farnsworth's exit and the fateful, final swing of the day.

There were all those Braves left on all those bases -- 17 of them in all -- thanks to one Houdini act after another by that trusty Astros bullpen. The Braves, for the day, would go a disastrous 1 for 19 with runners in scoring position.

There were all those lineup changes by Garner, creating chaos on scorecards everywhere. He used four men in the No. 2 hole in the lineup, five in the No. 5 spot and three in the No. 7 slot. He moved reserve Eric Bruntlett from shortstop to center field, then back to short and back to center. He maneuvered Jose Vizcaino from short to first to short. Both of his catchers -- Ausmus and Raul Chavez -- also played three innings at first base. And in all, Garner made 26 lineup changes in the final 15 innings. It was so head-spinning that Ausmus said afterward he was just grateful that "they have the lineups up there on the scoreboard -- so I knew exactly where everybody was."

And then, in the end, there was Chris Burke.

When he headed for the batter's box with one out in the 18th, it had been four weeks to the day since he'd last driven in a run. He'd entered this game only because Garner felt he needed a pinch-runner for Berkman in the 10th. And he wasn't a guy anyone would have nominated as Most Likely To Imitate Joe Carter.

But Braves rookie Joey Devine fell behind him, 2 and 0, then threw a waist-high fastball that tailed right into Burke's best hack. And as the baseball flew toward the left-field scoreboard, Burke began sprinting up the line, not quite sure if it was safe to pump his fists.

And then the ball disappeared into the third row, 338 feet from the spot Burke had hit it. And Chris Burke had just swatted himself into October history.

It wasn't until he'd sprinted all the way to third base, and spotted third-base coach Doug Mansolino, that it began to seep in that "this was pretty big -- because [Mansolino's] eyes," Burke said, "were as big as his face."

Then he disappeared into a mob scene at home plate, as fireworks exploded and a train whistle pierced the sky and confetti floated out of the upper deck. For the next 10 minutes, it was New Year's Eve.

Astros players couldn't stop hugging. Fans who had sat in their seats for six hours had no interest in leaving, even after this game was over. Families posed for photos of themselves amidst the bedlam. It was a scene that summed up exactly why sports hold the place they do in our world. Clearly, this wasn't merely a game these folks had just experienced. It was a special day in their lives.

And in Chris Burke's life, this was a day to not just deposit in his memory bank, but to deposit in baseball's eternal highlight reels. This was his little Joe Carter moment.

"Hey, I know it's not quite that big," Burke protested, "because his was in the World Series. But for me, being such a big fan as a kid growing up, watching those moments -- Aaron Boone, Kirk Gibson, Jim Leyritz -- to actually be a part of one of those type of moments, even on a smaller scale, it humbles me.

"I'm just starting to grasp it, because these are the types of homers you always see replayed. And now one of them is mine."

But for every winner, there's a loser. And for every euphoric story in games like these, there's a sad story ready to be written about the men on the other end of someone else's euphoria.

On this day, that sad story belonged to the Braves. Again.

They'd become only the third team in postseason history to hold a five-run lead after the seventh inning and lose. (The others were the 1993 Phillies, in the fabled 15-14 World Series game, and the 1992 Athletics, in an ALCS game remembered for a game-winning Robbie Alomar homer off Dennis Eckersley.)

They'd just been booted out of the playoff party in the first round for the fourth straight year.

And the fact that they'd been involved in a game that deserved its own History Channel documentary wasn't serving as much consolation.

"It gets old when you battle your butts off and don't get rewarded," said Smoltz. "We're tired of playing in these classics and losing. It reminds me of the game [seven] in Minnestota -- the Greatest Game Ever Played. But we lost. This was probably the Greatest Division Series Game Ever Played. But we lost. ...

"To be one out away, one pitch away, from winning and then have to play another nine innings -- it's a tough way to lose. When you're put in this position, you're going to have one of two feelings in the end: gut-wrenching or ecstasy. There's only one way you can feel. We got the gut-wrenching. And it doesn't feel real good."

But on the other side of the stadium, life had never felt better.

Clemens talked of wanting to go right home and watch this game again, "just to try and look at the details of everything that happened."

Ausmus admitted thinking numerous times during the game that this "was just an unreal game, an instant classic. It was probably the best game I ever played in from the first to the 18th inning," he said. "Of course, it was probably the only game I ever played in from the first to the 18th inning."

And Berkman, who grew up in Houston, seemed to sense the meaning of the moment better than any of them.

"People still talk about the 16-inning game they played here against the Mets in 1986," he said. "They even wrote a book about it. Around here, that's regarded as the ultimate playoff moment for this team.

"I just hope that this is one of those games that helps us create our own tradition here."

Well, this is, in fact, how traditions are made, how history books are written, how memories seal themselves inside the vault of a million souls.

So all these Astros have to do now to finish the job is win eight more games this month -- and they'll officially guarantee that no one in Houston will ever forget The Day The Astros Played 18.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.