If you're a Houston Astros fan, Sunday's 18-inning series clincher over the Atlanta Braves was the greatest game in baseball history. If you're a Braves fan, it was probably kind of routine, nothing more than an entertaining postponement of the inevitable.
Most of the rest of us can list a few better games, including the classic 16-inning Game 6 of the 1986 National League Championship Series, also in Houston and also a clincher, but that one not such a happy memory for the locals. The 1980 NLCS, which the Astros lost three games to two to the Philadelphia Phillies, blends in my memory into one long, humdinger of a game.
But no complaints. Sunday's 7-6 Astros win was a doozy, an all-time great, the Astros coming from 6-1 down on a grand slam by Lance Berkman in the eighth inning and a game-tying solo shot by Brad Ausmus in the ninth. The Braves also got a grand slam, from Adam LaRoche, making this the first postseason game ever with a grand slam by each team.
Along the way we saw 13 and two-thirds innings of one-run, eight-hit, 14-strikeout -- and eight(!)-walk -- relief from the Astros bullpen, including Roger Clemens throwing the last three and getting the win in his first relief appearance since 1984, the second of his career. Clemens had been slapped around as a starter in Game 2 Thursday.
In the other playoff game Sunday, also a good one but pale by comparison, the New York Yankees rallied to beat the Los Angeles Angels 3-2 in Game 4 at Yankee Stadium, sending the teams across the country for the deciding game Monday.
The Braves bullpen was pretty good too in the 18-inning game, once Kyle Farnsworth got finished coughing up the five-run lead he'd been handed by giving up the homers to Berkman and Ausmus in the eighth and ninth.
Chris Reitsma, John Thomson, Jim Brower and Joey Devine combined for eight and a third innings of one-hit shutout extra-inning relief before Devine gave up the game-winner, a short-porch homer by Chris Burke. If Devine, a first-year pro, is remembered as the goat of this game, Farnsworth ought to send him a Christmas card every year for life.
Clemens actually entered the game as a pinch-hitter, one of those oddities you get in marathon games, things like the box-score entry for Houston's Eric Bruntlett -- "Bruntlett, ss-cf-ss-cf" -- or the fact that Bruntlett entered the game in the eighth inning and got five at-bats.
Here's another oddity: The game only took five hours and 50 minutes to play. That's a strange "only," and this was the longest game in postseason history by the clock as well as the scoreboard. But it was also pretty darned snappy.
This year's playoff games have been moving along nicely, with the average game taking 3:07, not counting Sunday's marathon, and seven of the 13 nine-inning games checking in under three hours. But this is the playoffs, and when things get tense, and pitching changes start coming hot and heavy, the games can drag on. Yankees-Angels Game 3, a nine-inning contest, lasted four hours.
This game featured nine extra innings and 12 pitching changes, though only two occurred within an inning, another oddity. It had every right to be seven hours long.
So now the Astros get an NLCS rematch with their division rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals. Houston has to feel pretty good about this. Last year the Astros came within one win of beating St. Louis. Those Cardinals were five wins better than this year's model, and the Astros have all of their Big Three starters healthy this time. Last year, Andy Pettitte was hurt.
The Braves can go home secure in the knowledge that their stuff doesn't work in the playoffs. I'm a firm semi-believer in the theory that the postseason is a big crapshoot, but that's only in the short term.
Just as in the regular season, you can lose a series because of the bounce of the ball and the alignment of the stars, but lose enough of them and it says something about you.
The Braves have now lost five straight postseason series, dating back to the 2001 NLCS. They've gone 8-16 in those games. That's the same record the Brooklyn Dodgers put up in four World Series between 1947 and 1953, when they were the personal whipping boys of the Yankees. And those Yankees teams were stiffer competition than the Diamondbacks, Giants, Cubs and Astros have combined to be over the last five years for the Braves.
Everybody who's ever watched a baseball game has a theory about why the Braves have been so futile in October over their 15-year run of regular season success. They're built for the regular season. They never have enough dominant power starters or good relievers. Their fans are too indifferent. They're chokers. The baseball gods hate the Tomahawk Chop.
The theories have been flying for longer than the Braves have been this bad at October baseball. In the '90s, the Braves, despite their already-entrenched reputation, actually won 11 of the 18 postseason series they played in, and though they only won one World Series, they did win five out of eight pennants, and three of those were in years with the current two-tiered league playoff system.
Since the century turned, though, they've lost six of seven series. I realize that baseball seasons are separate, and you can't blame this year's first-round washouts for, say, the 2000 sweep at the hands of the Cardinals. But there's enough continuity from year to year that, given a pattern of such longevity, I have to think something's up.
I don't know what it is that beats the Braves every fall, but it's not just tough luck.
You have to tip your cap to them, though. They helped make it awfully fun on Sunday.
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