Working on three days' rest, Hudson gutted out seven-plus strong innings, throwing 92 pitches before handing the ball over to Kyle Farnsworth with two on and no outs in the eighth inning.
The Astros would score four times in the eighth on Lance Berkman's grand slam. And when Farnsworth surrendered a two-out homer to Brad Ausmus in the ninth inning, Hudson's shot at a victory was erased.
What was shaping up as a Braves win that would have forced a decisive Game 5 on Monday in Atlanta turned into a gut-wrenching 7-6 loss on Chris Burke's walk-off homer in the 18th inning.
"Obviously I would have loved to have seen us close it out and head to Atlanta with a 'W,' but they battled and got themselves into position to tie it up," said Hudson, who gave up three runs on six hits in seven innings. "After that, I was a spectator in here rooting guys on. You've got to tip your hat to all our guys in the bullpen. They've taken a lot of heat all year. Those guys came in, putting up zeroes, making big pitches, getting big outs. Going 18 innings, I have a lot of respect for those guys. They went out and battled, but they just outlasted us."
Going on short rest raised concerns. But immediately, Hudson showed he was on top of his game.
After struggling in Game 1, when he suffered the loss, Hudson was eager to get back on the mound, even if it was a day earlier than he was accustomed to throwing.
Showing an economy of pitches, he was able to go deep into the contest. A seven-pitch seventh inning ran his pitch count to 82 heading into the eighth.
Staked to a 6-1 lead, Hudson issued a leadoff walk to Brad Ausmus and an infield single to Eric Bruntlett. At that point, Farnsworth entered, and the Astros were able to pull off their remarkable comeback.
"Farns came in, he gave up a couple of homers that cost us, but without him, we wouldn't be here," Hudson said. "People have to understand that. He's been our best guy out of the 'pen all year. It stinks for them to tie it up like that, but other guys in the 'pen stepped up, put up some zeroes."
Since the Braves have had spotty relief of late, manager Bobby Cox didn't mess around, going with his closer in hopes of working the final two innings.
Before the game, Farnsworth told Cox he was ready to go two, if necessary.
"I told Bobby, 'If you need me to go two innings, I can go two,'" Farnsworth said. "He did what he had to do. It's one of those things. It happens."
Even after giving up the grand slam to Berkman in the eighth inning, Farnsworth was on the verge of closing out the Astros in the ninth inning. But Ausmus went deep on a 2-0 count, crushing a drive to left-center that barely cleared the wall more than 404 feet away from home plate.
"Farnsy has been nails for us all year," Hudson said. "Without him, we wouldn't be here. That eighth inning, I got it started with that walk and an infield hit. He came in trying to make good pitches, but they just tied it up. That's how it is."
Falling behind in the count, Farnsworth threw a fastball that Ausmus didn't miss.
"It's a game of inches, and he hit it over the fence," Farnsworth said. "It's one of them things. We battled. The best team won. If it's another foot to the left, it's a double."
Veteran John Smoltz, who wasn't available on Sunday, but would have been on Monday, feels the frustrations of being eliminated early yet again.
Sitting through Sunday's 18-inning battle reminded Smoltz of Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. In that memorable game, the Twins, behind 10 shutout innings from Jack Morris, beat the Braves, 1-0. Smoltz started that game, throwing 7 1/3 scoreless innings.
"It gets old when you battle your butts off," Smoltz said. "We're tired of the classics that we're losing. This reminds me of Minnesota, the greatest game ever played, but we lost. This is probably the greatest Division Series [game] ever played, but we lost. That's how it felt."
Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.