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ASTROS 7, BRAVES 6

Astros go to great lengths to advance

HOUSTON -- Roger Clemens could see the Houston Astros were running out of pitchers.

''As the game went longer and longer, [manager] Phil [Garner] finally came up to me and said, 'Get ready and get your spikes on. I may need you,' " the 43-year-old ace said. ''Sometimes he jokes with me, but I knew he meant it."

Clemens came out of the bullpen to boost his team, then Chris Burke ended the longest postseason game in baseball history with a home run in the 18th inning, lifting the Astros over the Atlanta Braves, 7-6, yesterday and into the NL Championship Series.

The Rocket's rescue also gave him a measure of redemption. Making his first relief appearance since 1984 with the Red Sox, he pitched three dominant innings and atoned for a poor start in Game 2.

Now, Garner's team gets a matchup against the St. Louis Cardinals -- the same club Clemens lost to in Game 7 of last year's NLCS.

''I love this, this is why you get off the couch to play this game," said Clemens, who opted not to retire two years ago to pitch for his hometown club. ''I've been fortunate to have played in a lot of big games, but it's still exciting."

The Braves took a five-run lead into the bottom of the eighth, and were poised to send this first-round series back to Atlanta for a decisive Game 5.

Instead, Lance Berkman hit a grand slam in the eighth and Brad Ausmus tied Game 4 with a two-out homer in the ninth.

Then, at 6-all, the Braves and Astros began the real endurance test that wound up lasting 5 hours 50 minutes. The previous longest postseason game also occurred in Houston -- the New York Mets clinched the 1986 NLCS with a 16-inning win at the Astrodome.

''I'm sure proud of the guys," Clemens said. ''It's been a lot of work for us. How 'bout the kid?"

Standing next to Clemens, the 25-year-old Burke was beaming.

''I'm just glad I could do my part," Burke said. ''It was draining, mentally draining."

The Astros get a few days to rest. The NLCS starts Wednesday night at Busch Stadium.

''If he comes in a game like that, you know it has to be important to him," Jones said. ''He was going to try not to make any mistakes, and he didn't. He pitched great."

Clemens, who pitched the last three innings, gave up one hit and struck out four, setting up the first NLCS rematch since Pittsburgh and Atlanta played in 1991 and 1992. Last October, Clemens could not hold an early lead in Game 7, denying the Astros their first World Series appearance.

The loss marked another early October exit for the Braves, who have won an unprecedented 14 straight division titles but have just one World Series crown to show for it. The Astros eliminated Atlanta last year.

''It never feels good, but I've had a couple of heartbreakers where I could have won the game, but instead ended the season," Chipper Jones said. ''You learn from that."

The Braves wasted an early grand slam by Adam LaRoche. Berkman's shot made this the first postseason game ever with two slams.

Burke entered in the 10th as a pinch runner. He came up with one out in the 18th against rookie Joey Devine, and launched a drive over the left-field wall.

Burke was mobbed by his teammates at the plate after only the sixth series-ending home run in history, and the first since Aaron Boone sent the Yankees over Boston in the 11th inning of Game 7 in the 2003 ALCS.

Clemens first entered the game as a pinch hitter in the bottom of the 15th, and had a sacrifice bunt after a leadoff walk by Craig Biggio. But after another walk, Morgan Ensberg grounded into an inning-ending double play.

About three hours before the game finally ended, Ausmus hit his unlikely homer off Kyle Farnsworth. In the eighth, Farnsworth -- the latest in a long line of Atlanta relievers to fail in the postseason -- gave up the grand slam to Berkman after replacing Tim Hudson.

Ausmus, with just three homers in 134 regular-season games, hit a ball that ricocheted off a column in left-center field -- just above the yellow line signifying a home run.

Atlanta led, 6-1, when Hudson allowed the first two hitters to reach in the eighth and was pulled. Biggio reached on a fielder's choice grounder and Scott walked before Berkman's opposite-field shot into the seats in left.

LaRoche hit a grand slam in the third off Astros starter Brandon Backe and Andruw Jones added a sacrifice fly to put the Braves up, 5-0, in the fifth.

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