Burke's heroic homer still legendary
Rookie was an unlikely prospect to end 18-inning marathon
For the Houston Astros franchise, one swing of the bat on an early October evening in 2005 was all it took to transform a situation of desperation to one of jubilation. One swing redefined an organization and gave it a new identity. In the end, one swing catapulted the franchise toward its highest point in more than 45 years.
In a 2007 baseball season centered around home runs and Barry Bonds' passing of Henry Aaron's all-time homer record, Chris Burke is best known to this day for hitting the most memorable home run in Houston franchise history.
With one out in the bottom of the 18th inning of the 2005 NLDS Game 4 against the Atlanta Braves, Burke lined a pitch from Atlanta's Joey Devine into the Crawford Boxes, a 338-foot shot that gave the Astros an amazing 7-6 victory on Oct. 9, 2005. The game is still the longest in postseason history.
"At the time, I don't think I really grasped it or had a whole lot of perspective on it," Burke said. "Since then, I've been able to get away from the moment and realize how important it was, not only for us as a team but to people in the city. I've had a lot of people say extremely nice things.
"I've had people tell me they had some of the greatest times of their lives sitting at that game. It's humbling to think you were part of a moment like that."
Burke was hardly the first player to help lift his team to a postseason series win with a home run. But this one was different from most others, given the dire straits the Astros would have faced, had they lost that game.
The bullpen, in a word, was spent. Russ Springer pitched two innings. Chad Qualls added two more. The same was true of closer Brad Lidge. Dan Wheeler threw three innings, while Mike Gallo added two-thirds of an inning and Wandy Rodriguez pitched one.
By the end of the 15th inning in that legendary game, every member of the 12-man Houston pitching staff had thrown except for three: Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens.
"We were down to nothing," Lidge said. "We were totally out of options. If we don't win that game, we go back to Atlanta and face [John] Smoltz, and our bullpen is completely depleted. We're in a lot of trouble if we lose that game.
"The home run was absolutely huge, and we were all exhausted. Thank God someone stepped up and did something about it.
Oswalt couldn't have pitched under any circumstances because he had started the previous night, and Pettitte was the scheduled starter for Game 5, if necessary, the next night. Making matters worse, Pettitte was home sick during Game 4 and likely wouldn't have been at full strength the next day, while the Braves had Smoltz waiting in the wings.
That left Clemens, pitching on two days' rest after a start in Game 2. He pitched admirably, tossing three shutout innings and fanning four to keep Houston in the game and continually bringing the sold-out crowd of 43,413 at Minute Maid Park to its feet with his energy, even as the game approached the six-hour mark.
When Clemens struck out Jeff Francouer swinging to end the top of the 18th, he left to another ovation and brought another surge of electricity to the crowd. But as great as he was, Clemens only had a limited number of innings in him, and he was rapidly approaching that limit. The Houston offense, at the time, had just one hit in extra innings, leaving little hope that the game would end soon.
"It would've been really tough to come back from that, as a bullpen, if we had lost that game," Wheeler said. "We had all thrown two or three innings, and our starting pitcher [Pettitte] for the next game was really sick."
In the bottom of the inning, the Astros appeared ready to put up another zero when Clemens led off with a strikeout and was followed by Burke, a rookie who struggled in his first year at the plate, hitting just .248 with five home runs and becoming a whipping boy of sorts for fans upset with a lack of offense.
Alhough Burke was and still is considered a solid second-base prospect, his power numbers were deemed too minimal to play left field, where he played for much of the 2005 season in Houston.
And if the game had stretched one or two more innings, Clemens would have been exhausted, and the Astros would've turned to Jason Lane -- yes, outfielder Jason Lane -- to pitch against the Atlanta lineup.
Assuming that experiment wouldn't have turned out well, Houston would've lost the game and been forced to face elimination, on the road, with its entire pitching staff either sick or worn out from overuse. The Braves, however, still had additional bullpen arms available in the 18th that would've been fresh for Game 5, thanks to starter Tim Hudson going deep into the game.
Instead, one swing of the bat from Burke on a 2-0 count rendered all of that irrelevant and put the wheels in motion for the first championship in Houston baseball history when the Astros defeated the Cardinals in the ensuing NLCS to capture the National League pennant.
"I went up there actually trying to bunt," Burke said. "I thought to myself that we hadn't had a baserunner in a while, and Chipper Jones had been playing third for 18 innings, so maybe I could catch him a little tired.
"[Devine] bounced the first pitch. I said, '[Since I'm ahead in the count,] maybe I'll readjust my thinking and look for a pitch to drive.' Then he pitched inside -- basically, the same place as the first [pitch], but over the plate. My eyes were already on the inside, and I was able to get my hands inside of it and hit it out."
In addition to saving the Astros pitching staff, Burke's shot transformed the identity of a franchise known for offensive ineptitude in the postseason. Although the Astros had been to the playoffs six times in the past nine years at the time, they had only won one series and had never won a championship. By and large, the issue with the team was a lack of hitting when it mattered most.
It seemed, before Burke's blast, that Game 4 might be another game where the hitting woes cost them. Although Lance Berkman's grand slam in the eighth brought the Astros within 6-5 and Brad Ausmus' improbable 404-foot shot to left-center with two outs in the ninth tied the game, the Astros' inability to generate baserunners in extra innings had some fans heading to the exits.
To an extent, it seemed like the same old Astros.
But with one swing, it suddenly wasn't. And a week and a half later, when the Astros won their first NL pennant by defeating the defending league champion Cardinals in six games, they had Burke's historic shot to thank.
"Even though that game was exhausting, you get so much adrenaline and emotion from something like that," Lidge said. "It definitely carries over to the next series. Whatever the circumstances, it makes you feel like you can win."
"That home run probably was [the biggest in Houston history] because it clinched it for us," manager Phil Garner said. "For a whole lot of reasons, that was huge. We didn't have any more pitching. Andy [Pettitte] was sick, and I'm not sure how he would've managed the next day.
"It meant a lot to us because it took us beyond Atlanta. We had trouble getting past Atlanta the year before [Houston won in a decisive fifth game], and obviously in previous years before that [Houston had lost three times in the NLDS to Atlanta]. It certainly gave us a big lift. It was phenomenal."
One of the most controversial decisions of that game came when Berkman drilled a two-out double in the bottom of the 10th, and Garner chose to pinch-run for him with Burke. Berkman was a step slow that season, coming off a serious knee injury, and Burke provided much-needed speed on the basepaths in that particular situation.
But when the Astros failed to score, they were left in a tie game with no end in sight and without their best hitter. Had they lost, Garner might've been the goat. With Burke's swing, he was a hero.
"That was probably the biggest game ever [for the franchise]," said right fielder Luke Scott, who narrowly missed hitting the game-winning home run himself in the 10th inning when his ball went inches foul of the left-field pole. "It was a knockout battle. We were getting beat pretty soundly the whole game until the last two innings, then we put together some big home runs.
"It was really dramatic. Incredible."
Ben DuBose is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.