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Astros outlast Braves, head to NLCS

Astros outlast Braves, head to NLCS

HOUSTON -- The Houston Astros didn't have the luxury of relying on one or two particular players to carry them through this season. They fed off the strength of their pitching, but they needed help from just about everyone on the 40-man roster to aid in an effort that eventually ended with a Wild Card berth.

So it's only fitting that the Astros' 18-inning marathon on Sunday, which ended with a 7-6 win over the Atlanta Braves, required the assistance of everyone on the roster. It's also fitting that the biggest heroics came from a melting pot of Astros players: the rookie, the All-Star slugger, the cerebral No. 8 hitter and the sure-fire, first ballot Hall of Famer.

The collective efforts during this five-hour, 50-minute epic drama will be remembered for many things, the least of which is the fact that it was the longest postseason game in Major League history.

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The first indelible image emerged in the eighth inning, when Lance Berkman's grand slam off Kyle Farnsworth dug the Astros out of a monstrous five-run hole to narrow the gap to a much more comfortable 6-5 deficit.

Next up was Brad Ausmus' two-out solo homer in the ninth, also off Farnsworth, which tied the game at 6 and sent the teams to extra innings.

Next was Roger Clemens and his three scoreless, and nearly flawless, innings that took the Astros into the bottom of the 18th. The attention then shifted to rookie Chris Burke, who lined a 2-0 offering from Joey Devine into the left-field Crawford Boxes, sending the Astros to the National League Championship Series in walk-off fashion.

So many storylines, one result: a postseason series victory.

"We screamed," general manager Tim Purpura said when asked for his reaction when Burke homered. "My mom and wife and daugther were sitting up there with me and we all hugged and kissed, cried a little. It was amazing to see. Everybody just waited for it to happen.

"You go through all the emotions throughout the game. You're up, you're down. You come back. Ausmus' home run was one of the high points of this franchise's history. To see where it hit and that it was just barely above the line was incredible."

This was truly a game of inches. Andruw Jones, the slickest center fielder in the league, chased Ausmus' fly ball to the 404' sign in left-center, but could not reach it before it smacked against the brick wall, barely above the yellow home run line.

It took the crowd a few moments to realize the umpire was twirling his finger in the air, indicating a home run.

But Dan Wheeler, one of the few left in the bullpen, knew it immediately.

"I saw it hit the cement," he said. "I knew it. Some of the guys in the bullpen, the few that were left out there, didn't know. But I actually watched the ball. The first thing I thought was Andruw, he catches everything in the air. I said, 'That's the game,' because he's just so good out there. Then I saw that ball bounce, and I said, 'Oh my God.'"

Said Ausmus: "[Farnsworth] throws hard, and he was 2-0, so I figured he had to come with a fastball. I'm not a home run hitter, so I don't think he was particularly concerned about me hitting a home run to center or right field. That was probably the biggest [home run] I've had. That whole game was unbelievable."

Berkman also admitted he'd never had a bigger moment in his Major League career than his grand slam that started the ball rolling.

"It was probably the quickest trip around the bases I've made in a long time," he said. "It was a very exciting and emotional moment."

In the books: NLDS Game 4
Notable numbers from Game 4 of the NLDS between Atlanta and Houston. -- AP
Milestone Sunday Previous record
Longest game (innings) 18 16, Mets-Astros, '86 NLCS
Longest game (time) 5:50 5:49, Yankees-Red Sox, '04 ALCS
Players used, one team 23 (tie), Houston 23, Mets-Braves, '99 ALCS; 23, Twins-Braves, '91 WS
Players used 42*
Pitches thrown 553+
Grand slams 2# First postseason game to have two
*Houston 23, Atlanta 19; +Houston 300, Atlanta 253; #Adam LaRoche, Lance Berkman

Hours passed between Berkman's 10th-inning double and Burke's 18th-inning homer, and in between, several key players marched in and out of the game. Burke ran for Berkman in the 10th, making the Astros' best hitter unavailable for eight frames. By the time this game ended, only three regular run-producers -- Craig Biggio, Morgan Ensberg and Jason Lane -- were still in the lineup.

"I almost felt guilty because I know the guys are out there and the physical toll is just tremendous," Berkman said. "I know it's not football or basketball, there's not a lot of aerobic activity, but the emotion and standing around out there ... I know I'm exhausted, and I only played nine innings."

"Exhausted? That's an understatement," Biggio said. "I'm doing everything I can just to stand upright."

Of course, the euphoria of winning this game trumped any feelings of fatigue.

"This team never does anything easy, but we never give up on each other," Biggio said. "To come from as far back as we have, there's no doubt about it. This year has been the most special."

Added Clemens: "This game was incredible. You'd have to ask the skipper, it's managing a nightmare maybe, because when he starts looking at pitchers to hit, and slots, and you can use your last catcher, it was incredible."

Garner, who played part of the 16-inning Game 6 between the Astros and Mets in the 1986 NLCS, said this one was far better. That's easy for him to say, considering the Astros lost in '86.

"I can't imagine a better game with as much on the line as this game," Garner said. "To have performances on both sides of the field that were as critical, and as good as they were and have a game like this ... it was unfortunate that somebody had to win or lose this game, actually. I'm certainly glad we won."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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