The Atlanta Braves have won so many games over the past decade that they are occasionally easy to overlook. Perhaps it's because they win with such grace, perhaps it's because they're so quiet about it or perhaps it's because winning seems to come so naturally to them.
Then there's a game such as this one, an epic, memorable game that lasted 4 hours 19 minutes. A game that is physically exhausting and emotionally draining. A game that tests a club's poise, endurance and staying power.
And the Braves win it, not by making one or two plays, but by making dozens of them in pushing the Houston Astros to the brink of elimination with a 5-3, 12-inning victory in front of 48,625 this afternoon at the Astrodome.
The Braves prevailed because Brian Jordan hit a three-run home run to get them back in the game, then won it with a two-run double in the 12th. They won because shortstop Walt Weiss stabbed a bases-loaded grounder in the bottom of the 10th. They won because their manager started one Cy Young Award winner and trotted in another from the bullpen in the seventh inning. His seventh pitcher of the day was a 19-game winner who got his first career save.
"It was an unbelievable game," Braves Manager Bobby Cox said. "I don't think there'll be another one like that. We threw the whole package out there."
Just down the hall from where Cox was speaking, the Astros were seeing it differently. They remembered the three times they left the bases loaded, how they let a two-run lead slip away and how they had the Braves on the ropes for most of the day without delivering the knockout punch.
"We had a million opportunities," Astros Manager Larry Dierker said, not bothering to hide the anger in his voice. "You can't keep going out there and scoring nothing inning after inning. It was pretty weak."
The victory gave the Braves a 2-1 lead in this best-of-five National League first-round series. Atlanta can advance to the National League Championship Series for the eighth straight time with a victory over the Astros Saturday afternoon.
If the Astros lose, they'll remember it as more than a disappointing way to end their 35-year run at the Astrodome. They'll remember it as another appearance in the playoffs that brought high hopes and ended in great disappointment.
"I'm numb," Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell said. "This was unbelievable."
The Astros deserved to lose and admitted it. They took a 2-0 lead off Braves starter Tom Glavine in the first inning, then failed to finish him off by leaving the bases loaded. They loaded the bases again in the seventh, but scored just once.
Cox brought in his number one starter, Greg Maddux, to pitch to one hitter and ended the inning with left-hander Mike Remlinger striking out Ken Caminiti and Matt Mieske with the bases loaded.
And the worst was in the 10th when the Astros loaded the bases with none out. Needing a fly ball to win the game, they got nothing. Cox brought in his closer, John Rocker, who got a pair of force plays at the plate, then struck out Ricky Gutierrez for the final out.
Weiss saved the game when Cox pulled his infield in with Tony Eusebio at the plate. Eusebio hit a hard grounder that Weiss dived to his left and stabbed. Weiss popped up and fired to catcher Eddie Perez for the force on Caminiti. "That's the game right there," Cox said.
Dierker said: "Weiss made an unbelievable play. Put your glove out there and hope the ball goes in."
Long one of baseball's best defensive shortstops, Weiss was in the game as a defensive replacement during some of the moves and countermoves in which the two managers used a total of 37 players, including seven pinch hitters and two pinch runners.
"When you're that far in and the ball is hit that hard, it's just a reaction play," Weiss said. "The tough part is getting the throw to the plate. You've got to be creative enough to get it off."
His play kept the Braves alive, and they finally won it in the 12th when Otis Nixon and Bret Boone singled off reliever Jay Powell with one out. Chipper Jones moved the runners up with a grounder to third, and with first base open, Dierker decided against walking Jordan despite his three-run home run in the sixth.
Dierker reacted testily when asked about pitching to Jordan. Powell had pitched him carefully, and Jordan, a right-handed hitter, had stuck the bat out and grounded an opposite field double down the right field line to score two runs.
Jordan said he'd gotten extra incentive while watching television coverage in which the Astros bragged that they wouldn't allow Jones to beat them. Instead, they would throw him pitches out of the strike zone, and if they walked him, they'd take their chances with Jordan.
Jordan homered after Jones walked in the sixth. Jones grounded out in the 12th, but with first base open, the Astros decided to let him hit.
"This is what I play for," Jordan said. "This is what I thrive on."
The Braves closed it out in the bottom of the 12th when Cox handed the ball to 19-game winner Kevin Millwood, the heir apparent to Atlanta's Cy Young tradition. Millwood retired three straight Astros, and the Braves were one step closer to another pennant.
"They threw everything they had at us," Astros second baseman Craig Biggio said. "If we'd have won this one, we'd have been in great shape for tomorrow. Now, we have to win."
Atlanta 5, Houston 3, 12 innings
Game 4:Today at Houston, 1 p.m., ESPN
Atl: Smoltz (11-8)Hou: Reynolds (16-14)
Braves lead series, 2-1
N.Y. Mets 9, Arizona 2
Game 4:Today, 1 p.m., ESPN2
Ari: Anderson (8-2)NYM: Leiter (13-12)
Mets lead series, 2-1
Today's AL games
Cleveland at Boston
Indians lead, 2-0
4 p.m., WTTG-5, WBFF-45
Cle: Burba (15-9)
Bos: R. Martinez (2-1)
N.Y. Yankees at Texas
Yankees lead, 2-0
7:30 p.m., WRC-4, WBAL-11
NYY: Clemens (14-10)
Tex: Loaiza (9-5)