Every baseball postseason creates its own energy and reveals its themes as it unfolds. In these short-series shootouts, you never know what's coming. But in less than a week, spread across eight cities, we now see the emerging shape of things.
When Roger Clemens started warming up in the Astros' bullpen in Houston on Sunday, preparing to pitch the 16th inning against the Braves, this baseball postseason woke up and stood at attention. This year, October started nine days late. Maybe it took the longest postseason game in history -- 18 innings in all -- to get the joint jumping, but the party has started.
Until the Rocket, working on just two days' rest, said, "Gimme the ball" and took the mound with nary a Houston relief pitcher available behind him, this year's playoffs had been sleepy, almost dispiriting. Now, Clemens has changed the whole tone of the proceedings. It's all right to get excited again.
By hurling three scoreless innings of pure power baseball, overwhelming the Braves with his 93 mph fastball, his glare and his presence, the 43-year-old bought his Astros enough time to win, 7-6, on a homer in the 18th inning. Thus Clemens closed out Atlanta in Game 4, sending the Braves home without a World Series crown for the 13th time in their 14 straight dazzling but frustrating postseason appearances.
"We had nothing to do here but watch" that game, chuckled New York Manager Joe Torre of the 5-hour 50-minute marathon in Houston. Then, fresh from watching the heroics of their old teammate Clemens, the Yankees went out and added to the growing tension by forcing a Game 5 against the Angels with a tense 3-2 win in Yankee Stadium.
"I was happy for Roger. To be able to do that when you know he's not 100 percent [with an injured hamstring]. But he does it on courage."
Clemens was knocked out on Thursday night and has been boiling to get redemption. Who needs rest? As soon as Chris Burke's game-winning blast left the Astros' ballpark, the same voltage that has electrified the last four Octobers suddenly began to flow through this autumn as well. You could even feel it in the Bronx, where the Yankees fell behind 2-0, but rallied to keep their season alive, just as they have resuscitated themselves countless times this season when others had them safely buried.
"I guess Roger was going to pitch until his tongue hung out. Andy [Pettitte] was in Atlanta. So he was in for it," added Torre, knowing Houston's only remaining pitcher was Roy Oswalt, who had gone seven innings the night before and couldn't be used by any sane manager. In another few innings, Houston and Atlanta might have been reduced to coaches pitching.
When Clemens, with seven Cy Young Awards, was dragged before the TV cameras to get even more postgame acclaim, he endured just one question before deflecting the attention to Burke. "How 'bout the kid?" beamed Clemens, pushing the interview away from himself even though this was one of the best postseason moments of a career that hasn't had quite enough of them.
Thanks, Roger, we needed that. "I've never seen anybody like him," said Astros Manager Phil Garner.
While Clemens was the day's main meal, the Yankees and Angels provided a nighttime dessert. Facing elimination, some germs came to the Yankees' aid. The Angels found out late Saturday that proposed Game 4 starter Jarrod Washburn had a throat infection with high temperature.
A man can pitch in the playoffs with staples in his bloody ankle to hold a tendon in place; the issue is tolerance of pain. However, a high fever is an even more debilitating proposition.
In a hurry, the Angels made tough decisions. Their ace, 21-game winner Bartolo Colon, loves extra rest to help his back problems. The big right-hander was on the verge of flying back to California a day ahead of the team. The Angels claim they had time to recall Colon. Instead, they decided to give the ball to John Lackey on three days' rest. He was excellent, allowing one run in 52/3 innings, but the Yanks' Shawn Chacon kept the game close, allowing two runs in his 61/3 innings.
Finally, in the seventh inning, the Yankees broke through for two runs against the Angels' excellent bullpen. Scot Shields was charged with both runs as an RBI single by Ruben Sierra tied the game and Derek Jeter drove home the go-ahead run when Angels third baseman Chone Figgins fielded his ground ball cleanly, but threw wide to home plate, allowing Jorge Posada to slide home with the lead run.
Despite the New York win, the game that invaded the nation's consciousness on an NFL Sunday was the classic between the Braves and Astros. Each team had a grand slam, something that had never before happened in postseason. The Braves blew a 6-1 lead. Houston was down to its last out in the ninth inning with nobody on base when Brad Ausmus hit a ball that cleared the yellow home run line in left field in Minute Maid Park by six inches at most.
After that almost-miraculous Houston escape, the Braves seemed paralyzed whenever they had a chance to win, going a dismal 1 for 18 with runners in scoring position. Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox, who will probably be criticized again this offseason, did an excellent job of keeping his original lineup virtually intact for the whole 18 innings, merely substituting one first baseman for another. Garner made a hash of his attack with double switches and the removal of slugger Lance Berkman for a pinch runner. In all, Houston lost 16 plate appearances by the players in its original lineup.
So why did Houston win? Because Burke, the most suspect of all the substitutions -- in for Berkman, who had hit a grand slam in the eighth -- delivered that final home run. So much for the rewards of proper strategy.
A long game "is always a risk when you take out your big guns," said Garner. However, he said he couldn't have slept if the Astros had failed to score a run in extra innings because Berkman couldn't get home from second on a single.
"In 1986, I played in the 16-inning [NLCS Game 6] between the Mets and the Astros" that gave the Mets the pennant, said Garner. "There was a book written about that game called 'The Greatest Game Ever Played.' I think this is going to be the sequel. I can't imagine a better game with this much on the line."
Garner is entitled to be so enthusiastic. Houston's victory and Clemens's performance were splendid. But they merely won a Division Series, not a pennant or a World Series. In the last four postseasons we have seen so many amazing games for even higher stakes that we may have become spoiled.
The rest of this postseason has its work cut out. It's tough to beat the sight of an old, hobbled, 341-game winner as he blanks the Braves through the 16th, 17th and 18th innings. But, if recent Octobers are the measure, somebody will top it soon.