HOUSTON — Like two lovers reluctantly breaking off a bittersweet affair, they embraced for several long seconds, oblivious to the impromptu fountains of champagne springing up around them in the clubhouse of the New York Mets, champions of the National League.
Met first baseman Keith Hernandez, his T-shirt soaked by a bottle of Great Western Extra Dry, whispered something into the ear of Houston Manager Hal Lanier, who was dry of eye and uniform.
The tears, if there would be any for Lanier, would come later. The uniform, like those of all the Astros, would get wet only after it was discarded into this winter's laundry.
Lanier managed a tight little smile. "Somebody had to," he said.
Hernandez kissed him on the cheek. It was the kiss of somebody who had won, though it had taken the longest game in postseason history for Hernandez and the rest of the Mets to outlast the Astros, 7-6, in 16 innings Wednesday and win the National League playoffs, 4 games to 2, before a deflated Astrodome crowd of 45,718.
Somebody had to go on to the World Series, and it will be the Mets for the first time since 1973, when they lost in seven games to the Oakland A's.
Somebody had to go home, and it was the Astros, who have come this close before--in 1980, when they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in a five-game series that included four extra-inning games--and who Wednesday left the tying and winning runs on base when Met reliever Jesse Orosco struck out Kevin Bass, the Astros' leading hitter.
This time, the Astros lost in what was probably the best baseball game ever played indoors, better even than those invented by the Mets' Lenny Dykstra when he was heroically rolling dice in his Strat-O-Matic board game back home in Garden Grove, Calif.
And it was better than all but a handful of games contested outdoors, too, as first the Mets and then the Astros swapped comebacks, the likes of which have never been seen--at least not since last Sunday in Anaheim (Angels, R.I.P.).
"But no matter how the dice were rolled," Met second baseman Wally Backman said, "they came out the right way for us."
The Astros roll first, scoring three runs in the first inning off Met starter Bob Ojeda, who might have given up more had the Astros' Alan Ashby not missed on a suicide squeeze attempt, leaving Bass hung up between third and home.
For eight innings, Astro starter Bob Knepper makes that lead stand up, holding the Mets to two singles.
But roll, Lenny, roll: Dykstra, sent up to the plate as a pinch-hitter, triples to touch off a game-tying rally in the ninth, with ex-Astro Ray Knight tying the score on a bases-loaded sacrifice fly off Dave Smith, Houston's ace reliever who chose the playoffs to reveal his window of vulnerability.
Top of the 14th, Mets roll again: Gary Carter singles, Darryl Strawberry walks, Backman singles, and Astro right fielder Bass fires his throw on the fly to the screen behind the plate. Mets 4, Astros 3.
Bottom of the 14th, Astros roll: Billy Hatcher, who had eight big league homers in 188 games, lines a drive off the left-field foul pole, turning the pole into a giant tuning fork while the Dome trembles in celebration. Mets 4, Astros 4.
"There were definitely a lot of lumps in throats," Backman said.
Orosco, the ace Met reliever who threw the home run pitch to Hatcher, wasn't having any trouble swallowing, however.
"When I was watching the ball," Orosco said, "I thought to myself, 'At least the game isn't over and I'm not walking off the mound.' "
The game would soon be four hours old (in all, it lasted 4 hours 42 minutes) and already had exceeded the 14-inning game that Boston and Brooklyn had played in the 1916 World Series. Until Wednesday, that 1916 game was the longest postseason game on record, but this one was far from over.
Top of the 16th, Mets roll: Strawberry, the playoffs' new strikeout king with a dozen K's, lifts a high pop fly to shallow center field. Hatcher doesn't get to it; neither does second baseman Billy Doran.
"I thought it was very catchable," Lanier said.
Hatcher said: "I was playing him to pull, and he popped it up. I couldn't get to it."
Knight lines a single to right, Bass makes another off-line throw, and Strawberry scores. Jeff Calhoun relieves Aurelio Lopez, throws two wild pitches, walks a batter and gives up an RBI single to Dykstra. Mets 7, Astros 4.
"With a three-run lead, all I could think about was that we were three outs away from going to the World Series," said Met catcher Carter, who has never been to the Series.
Not so fast.
One last roll for the Astros: Craig Reynolds strikes out, but ex-Dodger Davey Lopes, one of two non-pitchers left on Lanier's bench, draws a walk. Doran singles. Hatcher lines the next pitch for a single, Lopes scoring.
It's 7-5, and Orosco finds himself surrounded by angry Met infielders.