With elimination hanging in the balance, the Braves gutted it out in an epic encounter with the Astros on Sunday in Game 4 of the National League Division Series.
Little could anyone at sold-out Minute Maid Park realize baseball history was being made. The Astros outlasted the Braves, 7-6, on Chris Burke's walk-off homer off rookie Joey Devine in the 18th inning, sending Houston and its fans into a frenzy while Atlanta was sent reeling to elimination.
The Astros rallied in dramatic fashion in the longest playoff game in Major League history in terms of both innings and time elapsed (five hours and 50 minutes).
For the fourth straight year, the Braves' season ended in the NLDS. What made Sunday's setback so draining and disturbing is the fact Atlanta had so many chances to claim a victory that would have sent the best-of-five series back to Atlanta for a decisive Game 5 on Monday.
What stings the most is that Atlanta hitters were 1-for-18 with runners in scoring position, and that they went hitless in nine at-bats in such situations in extra innings. Getting runners on second wasn't a problem. Getting them home was.
"Things didn't go our way," said Andruw Jones, who went 1-for-6 with one walk and a hit-by-pitch. "[We made] a couple of mistakes, and not taking advantage when we had opportunities. Then they took over again."
Staked to a 5-0 lead on Adam LaRoche's grand slam in the third inning, and Andruw Jones' sacrifice fly in the fifth inning, the Braves seemed to have the game in control. After McCann's solo homer in the eighth inning, the lead grew to 6-1, but the Astros were able to rally in the eighth on Lance Berkman's grand slam off closer Kyle Farnsworth. Then, down to their last out in the ninth inning, Brad Ausmus delivered the tying homer, pushing both teams to their limits.
"We had our bags packed, ready to go back to Atlanta," Chipper Jones said. "And all of a sudden, the rug is pulled out from under you. It's unfortunate. You go out there, lay it on the line for six hours, and 18 innings. To go home for the winter on a game like that is a bad feeling."
The drain of the game made it grueling to even pick up a bat as the innings kept piling up.
"My last three at-bats, I didn't really feel good," Andruw Jones said. "I started getting some back spasms and it kind of affected my swing a little bit. It's no excuse. We had opportunities to take the lead. We didn't take advantage of it, and that's what happens."
"I lost track of how many at-bats we had today," said Chipper Jones, who had six at-bats plus three walks, giving him nine plate appearances. "After seven or eight at-bats, the bats starting getting heavy. Guys hadn't eaten since 10 or 11 this morning. It takes a lot out of you. You've got to gut it out. They did. I wish them luck. They played an outstanding series."
McCann caught all 18 innings, but he kept going on adrenaline.
"With the magnitude of the game, catching 18 innings, it didn't seem like that," McCann said. "If it was a regular-season game, maybe it would have seemed like that. But the atmosphere here, and what we needed to accomplish, it wasn't as big of a deal."
Early on, the Braves let scoring chances slip away. In the fifth inning, they knocked Astros starter Brandon Backe out of the game when Marcus Giles singled and Chipper Jones' double put runners on second and third with no outs. Andruw Jones' sacrifice fly made it 5-0, advancing Chipper Jones to third.
A key moment came when reliever Mike Gallo replaced Backe, inheriting Chipper Jones at third. After getting LaRoche to bounce out to first, and loading the bases, he got McCann on a grounder to second. Instead of breaking the game open with a big inning, the Braves scored just once.
Another chance came in the seventh inning, when LaRoche singled and Jeff Francoeur followed with a double into the corner in left field. LaRoche was waved home, but was thrown out at the plate.
While McCann homered to open the eighth inning, the rookie catcher came up with the bases loaded 14th inning and one out. He struck out, and the Braves again came away with nothing.
"I feel like I let the team down in that situation," McCann said. "Anytime you get the bases loaded with one out, you've got to get the job done."
Along with battling fatigue, the Braves had to deal with some impressive relief work from the Astros, who threw out closer Brad Lidge in the 10th and 11th innings, followed by three stellar innings from Dan Wheeler. In the 15th inning, Roger Clemens made his first relief appearance since July 18, 1984. Then with the Red Sox, the Rocket tossed two innings out of the bullpen against the A's.
"We tried to start a rally, and hopefully we could get a run and get the game over with," Andruw Jones said. "Things didn't go our way. We fought hard. They took advantage more than we did."