HOUSTON — Roger Clemens and the Houston Astros gave a whole new meaning to the word “longevity.”
The 43-year-old Rocket came out of the bullpen to rescue the Astros and Chris Burke ended the longest postseason game in baseball history with a home run in the 18th inning, lifting Houston over the Atlanta Braves 7-6 yesterday and into the National League Championship Series.
“I’m sure proud of the guys,” Clemens said. “It’s been a lot of work for us. How ‘bout the kid?’”
Standing next to Clemens, the 25-year-old Burke was beaming.
“I’m just glad I could do my part,” Burke said. “It was draining, mentally draining.”
The Braves took a five-run lead into the eighth, and were poised to send this first-round series back to Atlanta for a decisive Game5 tonight. Instead, Lance Berkman hit a grand slam in the eighth and Brad Ausmus tied Game4 with a two-out homer in the ninth barely beyond Gold Glove center fielder Andruw Jones’ outstretched glove.
Then, at 6-6, the Braves and Astros began the real endurance test that wound up lasting 5 hours, 50 minutes. The previous longest postseason game also occurred in Houston — the New York Mets clinched the 1986 NLCS with a 16-inning win at the Astrodome.
When Burke hit the homer, Clemens was in the dugout tunnel with Craig Biggio, the 39-year-old second baseman who has spent his entire career in Houston.
“We were like two tired old men walking out of the tunnel, and then we were like two kids having a good time,” Clemens said. “We were holding each other up.”
With Clemens pitching three scoreless innings in his first relief appearance since 1984 — and this time atoning for a poor start in Game2 — the Astros advanced to play the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS starting Wednesday night at Busch Stadium.
“If he comes in a game like that, you know it has to be important to him,” Jones said. “He was going to try not to make any mistakes, and he didn’t. He pitched great.”
Clemens gave up one hit and struck out four, setting up the first NLCS rematch since Pittsburgh and Atlanta played in 1991-92. Last October, the Cardinals beat Clemens in Game7, denying the Astros their first World Series appearance.
And it was another early October exit for the Braves, who have won an unprecedented 14 straight division titles but have only one World Series crown to show for it. The Astros eliminated Atlanta last year.
“It never feels good, but I’ve had a couple of heartbreakers where I could have won the game, but instead ended the season,” Chipper Jones said. “You learn from that.”
The Braves wasted an early grand slam by Adam LaRoche. Berkman’s shot made this the first postseason game ever with two slams.
Burke entered the game in the 10th inning as a pinch-runner. He came up with one out in the 18th against rookie Joey Devine, and launched a drive over the left-field wall.
Burke was mobbed by his teammates at the plate after only the sixth series-ending home run in history, and the first since Aaron Boone sent the Yankees over Boston in the 11th inning of Game7 in the 2003 American League Championship Series.
Batting just before Burke, Clemens took a mighty swing and missed against Devine before striking out. Clemens has never hit a home run in the majors.
Clemens first entered the game as a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the 15th, and had a sacrifice bunt after a leadoff walk by Biggio. But after another walk, Morgan Ensberg grounded into an inning-ending double play.
“It was kind of a microcosm of our season,” Burke said. “Started out slow, finished strong.”
The Astros started off 15-30 before rallying to claim the wild-card spot, though they finished 11 games behind St. Louis in the NL Central.
About three hours before the game finally ended, Ausmus hit his unlikely homer off Kyle Farnsworth. In the eighth, Farnsworth — the latest in a long line of Atlanta relievers to fail in the postseason — gave up the grand slam to Berkman after replacing Tim Hudson.
Ausmus, with just three homers in 134 regular-season games, hit a ball that ricocheted off a column in left-center field — just above the yellow line signifying a home run. Had it hit about a foot more to the left, the ball would have still been in play and Ausmus held to a double.
The Astros thought they had another homer to win it in the 10th, but Luke Scott’s drive down the left-field line curled just left of the pole. The crowd was already in a frenzy before realizing the ball had been called foul — TV replays confirmed that it was. Scott grounded out on the next pitch.
Atlanta led 6-1 when Hudson, the Game1 loser pitching on three days’ rest, allowed the first two hitters to reach in the eighth and was pulled. Biggio reached on a fielder’s choice grounder and Scott walked before Berkman’s grand slam, an opposite-field shot into the seats in left.
Farnsworth managed to preserve the lead then, getting Ensberg on a called third strike before Mike Lamb’s fly ball that right fielder Jeff Francoeur caught on the warning track. He didn’t have the same success against No.8 hitter Ausmus an inning later.
LaRoche hit a grand slam in the third off Astros starter Brandon Backe, who loaded the bases after walking two batters and hitting another. Jones added a sacrifice fly to put the Braves up 5-0 in the fifth.
Brian McCann, the rookie catcher whose three-run homer off Clemens was the big blow in Game2, put the Braves up 6-1 when he led off the eighth with a homer. McCann grounded out leading off the 17th in a rematch against the future Hall of Famer.
Notes — There were 553 total pitches. Clemens threw the last 44 of Houston’s 299 pitches. … Nicole Oswalt, the wife of Astros pitcher and Game 3 winner Roy Oswalt, sang the national anthem before the game and “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch.