Astros Advance to the NLCS!
The 2005 Houston Astros, the team about whom the Chronicle once said “Rest in Peace,” the loser of 30 of their first 45 games this season, today advance to the NLCS to take on, once again, the St Louis Cardinals.
In an eighteen inning war of attrition, the Astros emerged victorious on a home run from an unlikely hero, rookie Chris Burke. It is perhaps the most consequential home run in Astros history, as it sends the Stros back to St Louis for a rematch for the NL pennant denied by the Cardinals last year.
The Astros got to this point in the season largely on the strength of one of the strongest trios in the history of starting pitching. Roy Oswalt and Andy Petitte, with 37 wins between them, each had ERA’s below three. Ageless Roger Clemens, (42) in 211 innings had an ERA of 1.87 for the season.
But tonight, with the series favoring the Astros 2-1, the Astros would not be able to rely on any of these three mega-stars. It would be up to the former minor league position player turned pitcher, Brandon Backe, to either clinch the series, or send it back to Atlanta for a decisive Game 5. There the Astros would not have the favorable match up against a Tim Hudson, but would face the no-doubt future Hall of Famer, John Smoltz.
From the outset this game seemed like a must-win situation for the Astros, and as the game unfolded, the Astros put every chip on the table.
The gamble paid off.
Backe held the Braves for two innings, but the Braves got to him big time in the third, taking a 4-0 lead on a grand slam to Adam LaRouche.
Meanwhile, Tim Hudson had the Astros under control, holding them scoreless through the first four innings.
The Braves added another run in the fifth inning on a single by Marcus Giles, a double by Chipper Jones, and a sac fly by Andruw Jones. That was it for Backe, replaced on the mound by Mike Gallo.
But the Astros would answer in the bottom of the fifth with a run of their own on singles by Mike Lamb, Adam Everett, and Brad Ausmus.
The bats on both sides were quiet until the eighth inning, when the promising young Braves catcher, Brian McCann, hit a solo homer against Wandy Rodriguez, giving the Braves a seemingly insurmountable 6-1 lead.
But destiny favors the Astros. Against a tiring Tim Hudson, Brad Ausmus led off with a walk, followed by an Ed Bruntlett infield single. This chased Hudson, but Kyle Farnsworth promptly walked Luke Scott, loading the bases.
Not a great position for the Braves in this situation, for it brought up to bat the Astros’ only legitimate power hitter, Lance Berkman. Berkman did not disappoint the up-till-then quiet crowd at Minute Maid Park, as he, hitting left-handed, slapped a grand slam into the Crawford Boxes to get the Stros to within one run, and make this a game (and a series) once again.
Despite the heroic bomb by Berkman, the Astros still needed at least one run in the ninth to keep their hopes alive. Despite the grand slammer by Berkman in the previous inning, manager Jimy Williams decided to stick with his ace closer, Farnsworth, for the ninth.
With the Astros down to their last out, the weak hitting Brad Ausmus made him pay with this solo home run to tie the game and send it into extra innings.
For the rest of the game, the equivalent of another whole game, neither team scored until the bottom of the eighteenth. In the sixteenth inning, Astros manager Phil Garner, who knew a thing or two about playoff marathons from his experience in the 1986 NLCS against the Mets, decided to go all in. He brought in his ace starter Roger Clemens. In three innings Clemens shut down the Braves, facing only eleven batters, with four strikeouts.
Here’s the Rocket.
It is said that time stands still for baseball, for a baseball game could last unto eternity. Alas, not on this night, although the almost five hours it took to complete this game seemed almost like an eternity. For nine agonizing innings, the Astros failed to deliver even the one run that would have ended the misery.
The game did end finally, at what would have been the last inning of the second full game that night, on this unlikely hit, by this unlikely hero.
This is the greatest victory in the history of the Astros, and this is the greatest home run. Even if the highly touted rookie, Chris Burke, never develops into the star to replace Craig Biggio that we believe he will, he will live in the pantheon of Astros heroes as long as fans cheer for the boys from Houston.
The Astros advance into the NLCS as distinct underdogs to the St Louis Cardinal juggernaut that defeated the more powerful 2004 version of the Stros. But this is a team of destiny, sneaking into the Wild Card slot by one game, winning 21 games from August 30th to October 2nd.
Cardinals beware! The Astros are hot. They could...go...all...the...way.