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Astros' marathon adds luster to playoffs

Astros' marathon adds luster to playoffs

How can it get any better than this?

Somehow, it always does.

The Cardinals and Astros are headed for another National League Championship Series. The White Sox are waiting impatiently for the next step in a possible first World Series championship since 1917. Bengie Molina and the Angels are trying to keep the western half of the nation involved in October, and the Yankees are holding on for dear life in their bid to end a drought that is becoming long by their standards.

And fans everywhere just watched one of the all-time classic playoff games played out in Houston -- only to catch their breath for another inevitable roller coaster of emotion.

A lot has happened since Rally Monday, from the dethronement of the defending champions to dominating sweeps and edge-of-the-seat drama. How can it get any better than what just happened at Minute Maid Park, followed by a come-from-behind Yankee victory to force a deciding Game 5 Monday night at Angel Stadium?

How can it get any better than dueling grand slams, or seeing Roger Clemens come up to lay a perfect sacrifice bunt in the 15th inning and then pitch a 1-2-3 16th -- evoking memories of the Astros-Mets 16-inning battle in Game 6 of the 1986 NLCS? Somehow it always does, and slowly the picture is clearing.

The Astros' 7-6 victory meant the sudden end of another division-title season for the Braves, setting the stage for an NLCS rematch that begins Wednesday afternoon at lame-duck Busch Stadium. It is the same ballpark where so much postseason history has happened, including the Cardinals' Game 7 victory over the Astros for the last National League pennant. Now they meet again, with St. Louis coming off a relatively easy three-game dispatching of the Padres that was seen by East Coast viewers in the wee hours of Sunday morning.

That much we know, and we also know that the city of Chicago still has a chance to end a collective 185-year drought of autumns without a World Series title. The White Sox have a formidable hold on the latest chances, having just dominated the Red Sox in three. Chicago ended their American League Division Series so quickly that the biggest concern to White Sox fans now is what the extreme rest might mean to the team's pitching staff, and the start of the team's next series is still up in the air.

That's because the Angels and Yankees still have to determine the fourth and final party in this dance. New York was pushed to the extreme edge of elimination, but rallied from a 2-0 deficit to take the lead for good when Jorge Posada stepped on the plate just before Molina's tag on Chone Figgins' low throw home from third. Now they decide who opens Tuesday in the ALCS beginning at U.S. Cellular Field.

Add that Shawn Chacon pitching performance to the list this month. So many memories already have been made, and so many fascinating questions and possibilities remain.

Will it be the fourth consecutive year that a Wild Card winner has won the World Series? The Angels won it in 2002, the Marlins followed in 2003, and the Red Sox pulled off the improbable last year. With Boston out of the hunt now, it's up to the Astros, who will need every bit of the rest coming to them before Wednesday after this one.

"I don't know if I've seen anything like this," Clemens said. "I've been in a lot of wonderful playoff games, a lot of wonderful World Series, couple of them. I think a couple of the best ones I've been in have been on the losing side. Amazing World Series in '86 and probably 2001 (for the Yankees against Arizona), where your emotions go back and forth. I can remember what Andy (Pettitte) and I talked about throughout that 2001 series. But this game here was incredible."

Will this be the month that Andy Pettitte and Clemens go back to Yankee Stadium for the big show? Will it be the month that David Eckstein leads off a game in front of his former Angels fans? Will this be the month that the Cardinals end a World Series championship drought that matches the longest in club history?

"I'm just happy we're playing one of those two teams," leadoff man David Eckstein said before the Astros-Braves finish. "That stuff, you don't really think about. You want to go out there and play the game. I feel very fortunate to be part of it."

Will this month bring the first title in Astros history? Or maybe one of the biggest celebrations Chicago has seen? And exactly how will the White Sox handle all this time off? They already have decided to start Jose Contreras in the opener ahead of Jon Garland, who hasn't even pitched yet this postseason after dominating the regular season.

"It gives our pitchers a rest, a much-needed rest at the end of the season," White Sox third baseman Joe Crede said. "Nobody has any problems getting back out there and into the groove of things."

Same with the fans. After what just happened Sunday, nobody has any problem going right back after more drama. There is still so much left to do. You wonder how it can get any better than what just happened at Minute Maid Park, how you could top Brad Ausmus clearing the yellow home run stripe by centimeters and prolonging arguably the game of the century.

Somehow it always does. Ask Nolan Ryan, who saw it first-hand as part of the Amazin' Mets and was sitting in his seats to watch Clemens come out to relieve starting with that 16th inning Sunday.

This postseason has given us some indelible memories already. Brian McCann taking Clemens deep in Atlanta, and then going deep in the classic. Reggie Sanders' 10 RBIs in only three games for St. Louis to set an NLDS record. Molina taking a heater on the left arm after heroically showing long-ball form for the Angels.

It has been in the postseason that young Robinson Cano made his presence known to everyone at the end of his first Yankee season. White Sox fans are talking about their "Cuban connection" of Jose Contreras and Orlando Hernandez, who played huge roles on the mound in the Boston series. It was the first year of playoff baseball at PETCO Park, and while it didn't last long, it was a chance for Padres fans to cheer for a familiar face like Trevor Hoffman in yet another October.

Could this be the month that Alex Rodriguez finally wins a World Series championship? It's even more possible after what happened Sunday ngiht. There is still so much incredible drama just ahead, and finally it is starting to shape up. It seemed on Sunday that you never really would know, but the Astros have moved on.

In the 2004 NLCS, the home team won every game. That is what Cardinals fans hope will happen again this time. St. Louis won those first two at Busch last year, and then Minute Maid was electric as the Astros took a 3-2 series lead behind Jeff Kent's walk-off homer. Game 6 was when Jim Edmonds hit a spectacular walk-off homer in extra innings back at Busch, and then in Game 7, the Cardinals broke through against Clemens and clinched in front of a sea of red.

Most of the same cast of characters will be there at Busch on Wednesday. But this time, the Cardinals have Chris Carpenter to open against Houston. This time, the Astros will have Andy Pettitte. There is no Carlos Beltran now, and Scott Rolen is injured. Something special usually happens when these teams play, and one can only imagine what this best-of-seven series will be like.

The Cardinals, Astros and White Sox are waiting. One more game and we're down to the final four. How can it get any better than what you just saw Sunday at Minute Maid?

"I don't know if I've seen anything like this," Clemens said.

Somehow, someway, everyone sees something even more amazing right around the corner. Expect it. It's October, and it's just about time for another round.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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