HOUSTON (AP) — Sure, the Houston Astros had a plan in case Roger Clemens needed relief: Now pitching for the first time in his big league career: outfielder Jason Lane.
Fortunately for the Astros — and Lane — they didn’t have to go that route. Instead, they’ll head to St. Louis with their rotation fully rested for the NL Championship Series. Andy Pettitte is lined up to start Game 1 tomorrow night.
All thanks to Clemens and Chris Burke. Clemens pitched three scoreless innings in his first relief appearance since 1984, and Burke homered in the 18th to end the longest postseason game ever and lift the Astros over Atlanta 7-6 Sunday.
“Rocket might have thrown 10, 20 innings,” Houston manager Phil Garner said. “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.”
The Game 4 victory clinched the first-round series, and it took 5 hours, 50 minutes and eight Astros pitchers to win it.
“I wasn’t thinking instant classic,” Houston third baseman Morgan Ensberg said. “I was thinking it was a grind-out dogfight that we had to figure out someway to come out on top.”
Rather than traveling for a decisive Game 5 in Atlanta, the Astros got some much-needed rest yesterday. Garner gave his club the day off.
Next up is a rematch with St. Louis. The Cardinals won the NLCS in seven games last October to deny the Astros their first World Series appearance.
“We finally have another opportunity with the Cardinals. We have a shot,” Houston second baseman Craig Biggio said. “You only get a few chances like this in your career.”
Garner used every player on his 25-man playoff roster Sunday except Pettitte and Roy Oswalt.
Oswalt won Saturday night in Game 3, which ended just 14 hours before the series-ending marathon started, and Pettitte would have been needed for a game yesterday.
The Astros still have Clemens and 20-game winner Oswalt for Games 2 and 3 in the NLCS. The only thing unclear was if the Rocket’s 44 pitches on two days’ rest would change the order.
Pitching in a relief role for the first time since he was a rookie, Clemens atoned for his poor Game 2 start. He struck out four of the 11 batters he faced and allowed just one hit.
If the game had dragged on longer, Garner was ready to use Lane, who last pitched in a game in 1999 for Southern California. And Clemens, who before throwing a pitch entered the game in the 15th in the first pinch-hitting appearance of his career, might have stayed in the game.
“I’m sure they could hide me in the outfield. Why not?” Clemens said.
The Astros are in the playoffs for the ninth time. The closest they came to the World Series was last season, when Clemens had an early lead in the seventh game of the NLCS against the Cardinals.
It didn’t seem like the Astros would get another playoff chance this season when they were 15-30 in May. But Houston went 74-43 the rest of the way, clinched the NL wild card outright by winning on the final day of the regular season, and became the first team since the 1914 Boston Braves to make the playoffs after being 15 games under .500 in the same season.
“There’s no doubt about it, this year has been the most special year,” said Biggio, 39, who has spent all of his career in Houston and is on his sixth playoff club.
The series-clinching marathon victory over the Braves was just a microcosm of the entire season. The Astros got down big early, battled back and won at the very end.
Atlanta led 6-1 in the eighth inning Sunday before Lance Berkman, who Burke ran for two innings later, hit a grand slam. The Astros tied the game on Brad Ausmus’ two-out homer in the ninth.
“It’s been a grind for us for a long time,” Ensberg said. “We’ve been playing playoff baseball since April.”
And they’re still playing in October.