As Game 4 of the Astros-Braves Division Series stretched past plausibility, toward the end of its sixth hour and 18th inning, Houston's Chris Burke walked to home plate with a silent prayer on his lips: Give me peace. With the shadows of Minute Maid Park's latticework exterior crisscrossing the outfield in the late-afternoon light and the atmosphere having grown unsustainably taut, Burke, a rookie utilityman who had batted just once in the series before entering the game as a pinch runner in the 10th, thought of dropping down a bunt and stealing a base. But after taking two balls, he reconsidered. Then Burke, a small and square-jawed Kentuckian, pulled the 553rd and final pitch of the interminable afternoon, a belt-high fastball from Braves righthander Joey Devine, into the leftfield box seats, lifting Houston to a 7-6 win and into its second straight National League Championship Series against the Cardinals. It was not until he rounded third base and saw coach Doug Mansolino jumping to high-five him that Burke, 25, realized the magnitude of what he had done. "His eyes," said Burke of Mansolino, "were as big as his face." ¬∂ Amid positional merry-go-rounds and hokey Little League superstitions, the game had long since passed into the surreal. Astros manager Phil Garner used 23 of the 25 players on his roster, a half dozen of them in multiple spots on defense. Brad Ausmus, who hit the dramatic, two-out solo homer off Braves closer Kyle Farnsworth to tie the game 6-6 in the ninth, yo-yoed between positions; said third baseman Morgan Ensberg, "Catcher, first base, back to catcher--it was like a schoolyard game." Before Lance Berkman's eighth-inning grand slam off Farnsworth, Astros starter Brandon Backe, who'd been chased in the fifth with his team trailing 5-0, decided to try a playground charm. "Brad told me I'd been giving up hits all day, so why didn't I give some love to Lance's bat?" Backe said. "So I rubbed it a few times, started talking to it. I told it, 'This guy's got a hard fastball, be quick through the zone.'" The game's elasticity, its tension, reduced most players to giddiness. "By the 16th I was slaphappy," Ensberg said. "I was walking around the dugout asking people to hit me, and finally [shortstop] Adam Everett slapped me in the face."
Burke's home run made a winner of 43-year-old Roger Clemens, the last man in Houston's bullpen, who once more defied his age by throwing three innings of one-hit ball on two days' rest, buzzing mid-90s fastballs and diving splitters past the befuddled Braves in his first relief appearance since he was a skinny Red Sox rookie, in 1984. "He's not on this planet," Astros general manager Tim Purpura said afterward. "Roger Clemens is a superhero, a cartoon character."
Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt earned Houston's three wins against Atlanta, with Oswalt turning in the most stellar outing, in Game 3. He handcuffed the Braves for 7 1/3 innings, striking out seven with an infuriating combination of pinpoint fastballs and loopy breaking balls. "He's the only guy in baseball," said Braves catcher Brian McCann, "who throws a 95-mile-per-hour fastball and a 50-mile-per-hour curve." In several previous starts Oswalt had been mechanically unsound with his curve, trying to kill its speed by driving more softly off his back leg; against Atlanta he threw it over the top, with the same arm angle as his fastball, and let the break reduce its speed. Ausmus said it was the best Oswalt had thrown the pitch in a month.
The Clemens-Pettitte-Oswalt trio represents Houston's best chance of upsetting the Cardinals and advancing to the franchise's first World Series. St. Louis, the only team to reach 100 wins this season, barely broke a sweat in sweeping the Padres, never trailing in any game and riding an NLDS-record 10-RBI binge by leftfielder Reggie Sanders. The 37-year-old, who has appeared in six postseasons with five different teams, slugged a grand slam and drove in six runs in Game 1 alone. "They're a complete team with no real holes, and they don't beat themselves," says Padres second baseman Mark Loretta. "There's a reason why they had the best record in baseball."
The presumptive difference-makers for St. Louis this October are a pair of starters: righthander Chris Carpenter, who missed last year's playoffs with a biceps strain in his pitching arm, and southpaw Mark Mulder, who came over in a trade with the Oakland A's; both rebounded from late-season struggles with effective starts against San Diego and figure to give the meager Houston offense fits. Though the Astros scored 25 runs in four NLDS games, more than half of those came against the beleaguered Atlanta bullpen, which is among the majors' shallowest.
But before the rematch with the Cardinals could begin, there was time for Burke to celebrate. Growing up in Louisville, he was enthralled by baseball history and, like thousands of schoolboys with inchoate hopes, had watched the Dodgers' Kirk Gibson and the Blue Jays' Joe Carter end World Series games with home runs. He came to identify most strongly, however, with the blast Aaron Boone hit into the leftfield seats at Yankee Stadium two years ago, delivering the pennant to New York. Burke was an Astros farmhand then and had just hit .301 playing Double A ball in Round Rock, Texas. "I was working my way through the minor leagues," he says, "and I was beginning to understand that a moment like that could be possible." He found joining that company to be, more than anything else, humbling.
More playoff coverage, including Tom Verducci's Insider column, at SI.com/baseball.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES
St. Louis Cardinals versus Houston Astros
KEY POINTS The Astros led in all seven games when these clubs met in the 2004 NLCS, and they still lost.... Houston committed the NL's second-fewest errors, and St. Louis turned the most double plays.... The Cardinals won the regular-season series 11-5; Chris Carpenter (4-0, 1.85 ERA) was overpowering, and Jason Marquis (4-0, 3.22) earned a Game 4 start.... Hot-hitting Reggie Sanders wore out Houston pitching (.429, 13 RBIs in 11 games).... Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds are a combined 5 for 42 (.120) against lefty Andy Pettitte.... The Cards are 13 for 83 (.135) with no extra-base hits against Astros closer Brad Lidge.... St. Louis manager Tony La Russa is 46-39 in the postseason.
BOTTOM LINE Carpenter can make the difference now that he appears to be over his late-season funk. The Astros were too poor on the road this year (36-45) to overcome St. Louis's home field advantage. Cardinals in six.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES
Chicago White Sox versus Los Angeles Angels
KEY POINTS Bad news for the White Sox: Of the 14 teams that have swept a Division Series, seven were knocked out in the LCS.... The Angels won the season series 6-4, led by righty John Lackey (2-0, 2.57 in three starts).... Erstwhile starter Kelvim Escobar has been dominant since joining the Angels' bullpen (1.82 ERA, including the postseason).... The Sox outhomered the Angels 200-147.... Lefthanded relief is important against the lefty-heavy Angels, but Chicago specialist Damaso Marte (10.38 ERA in last 10 games) can't be trusted. Righty Brandon McCarthy (2.06 in the last month), left off the postseason roster, was a better option.... The Sox won 19 one-run games on the road; only the 1970 Orioles and the '72 Mets won more.
BOTTOM LINE Chicago has the more rested club, better starting pitching and the home-field advantage. White Sox in seven.
Photograph by David E. Klutho
¬†WHAT A RELIEF
Clemens earned the Game 4 win, coming out of the bullpen for the first time in 21 years.
PAUL BUCK/EPA (BURKE)
Burke briefly considered bunting before hitting the home run that ended the longest game in playoff history.¬†
PETER NEWCOMB/REUTERS (SANDERS)
The much-traveled Sanders caught fire against the Padres, driving in a Division Series--record 10 runs in the Cardinals' sweep.
DAVID E. KLUTHO (LIDGE)
TIM SHAFFER/REUTERS (LACKEY)