They will always remember this history-making game, of course, every bit of it. All the ground balls and strikeouts with men on base that extended this contest further than anyone had hoped or imagined. The home runs that helped the home team rally from five down to send the game into extra innings. And the home run that ended the longest postseason game in major league history.
Those who had put every bit of their heart and body into almost six hours of play called it the greatest baseball game ever played.
"It was remarkable," Atlanta Braves Manager Bobby Cox, of the losing team, said. "The entire ballgame, really."
The longest playoff game, in both time and innings played, ended after a thrilling 5 hours 50 minutes, when Houston utility infielder Chris Burke hit a home run to left field in the bottom of the 18th inning to give the Astros a 7-6 win in Game 4 of a National League Division Series. While Burke rounded the bases, his teammates jumped out of the dugout and began a celebration that could have been more extensive had the team not been so exhausted. The win sent the Astros to the National League Championship Series, where they will face the St. Louis Cardinals starting on Wednesday.
"This type of hit in this setting is a dream come true," Burke said. "It was a moment that was too short-lived and I won't have an appreciation for it for a long time."
After the celebration at home plate subsided, Houston Astros third baseman Morgan Ensberg separated himself from the group, took several steps toward the stands behind home plate and roared at the top of his lungs.
"I feel like a lot of times I'm so stoic," said Ensberg, one of only four Astros who played the entire game. "I wanted to make sure the fans knew I appreciated it. I was so excited and happy in the moment."
Houston owner Drayton McLane celebrated from his seat behind home plate after suffering helplessly through every at-bat. "In other businesses you can get personally involved," he said. "But in this one, no way."
The winning pitcher was Roger Clemens, Thursday's starting pitcher, who entered the game as a pinch hitter in the bottom of the 15th inning after every Astros reliever had been in the game. Only two Houston players were not used: Game 3 starter Roy Oswalt, who had pitched on Saturday, and Andy Pettitte, scheduled to start a now unnecessary Game 5. The Astros used every position player available and were prepared to use Oswalt, who put on his cleats, as a fielder in case of an emergency.
It was the eighth inning when Astros Manager Phil Garner asked Clemens if he was available. When Clemens entered the game, he placed a sacrifice bunt. Clemens apparently tried to end the game when he led off the bottom of the 18th with a mighty hack. He swung and missed. But Burke followed with the home run off rookie pitcher Joey Devine.
"You knew when it got late, Phil looked at me," Clemens said. "There's been three or four times throughout the year he asked me how I felt I was swinging the bat or if got my spikes handy. I didn't think he was serious, and he probably wasn't. But the look that he gave me this time was very serious, and there was no kidding about it. And so I got out to the bullpen."
Garner said Clemens would have pitched as long as it took to finish the game. Clemens pitched three scoreless innings, allowing one hit while striking out four.
"I'm happy for all these kids," Clemens said. "Just like I told our guys, the other guys in the clubhouse, hopefully it won't be for a few more weeks, but when I do look back on these years here, it's been a privilege to play with these professionals."
To simply send the game into extra innings, the Astros had made a furious comeback from a 6-1 deficit. Lance Berkman, in the eighth inning against Atlanta closer Kyle Farnsworth, hit a grand slam to put the Astros within one run. With two outs in the ninth inning, Brad Ausmus hit a home run to center field against Farnsworth to tie it. It was a momentous day for Ausmus, who with so many switches on the field, was sent to play first base for a couple innings, and then returned to catcher when Clemens was brought into the game.
"I am a little tired and my legs are heavy," Ausmus said.
It was their bodies that were tired and not their hearts. Players lingered in the clubhouse longer than usual, many with a cell phone in hand, and recounted events of the day.
Said Ensberg, "I'll definitely be telling this story a lot of times."