'Fearless' Burke makes most of chance
Teammates say rookie is always up for big-time situations
HOUSTON -- Morgan Ensberg, the champagne-soaked, unshaven, jovial, beaming mess of a third baseman, lit up when asked about his teammate's game-winning homer that clinched the Division Series for the Houston Astros over the Atlanta Braves on Sunday.
"Let me tell you something about Chris Burke," Ensberg said. "Chris Burke talks about situations like this all the time. He talks about how he wants to be the guy -- in these spots, at these times.
"He is not afraid to fail. He is saying, 'Give me a chance at this. I am willing to fail in order to get an opportunity to do that.'"
Burke, who entered the game in the 10th inning as a pinch-runner for Lance Berkman, was given the chance. And, to the delight of a sellout crowd at Minute Maid Park, he succeeded. Burke ended an 18-inning marathon with one mighty swing, knocking a 2-0 pitch from Joey Devine into the Crawford Boxes to lift the Astros to a 7-6 win over the Braves.
The homer sends Houston to its second consecutive National League Championship Series, and, as has been the case for much of the season, the hero of the game, or at least, one of the heroes of this game, was one of the lesser-known players.
Burke's teammates were thrilled for him, but not at all surprised the infielder/outfielder delivered.
"The guy is a winner," Ensberg said. "The guy is just a flat-out winner."
"Everybody wants a guy like Chris Burke to win a game for them," Brad Lidge said. "He's an unselfish player and he works as hard as anybody. When he hit that ball, I just jumped over the railing, totally overwhelmed that he did it. It was just awesome."
Burke is an interesting figure in the Houston organization. He's a former No. 1 draft pick, selected out of the University of Tennessee in June 2001. In that respect, his name is familiar to well-versed Astros fans.
But he's also a second baseman who is stuck behind Craig Biggio, a likely future Hall of Famer who just signed on for another year. This makes Burke's future uncertain, but if the Astros do deal him down the road, believe this -- it will absolutely break Tim Purpura's heart.
Purpura, finishing his first year as general manager, oversaw the Astros' Minor League system for a decade. He watched Burke develop into a fine second baseman, one who merited trips to the Futures Game during All-Star week in 2003 and 2004.
Over the years, Purpura spoke glowingly of Burke. He won't bowl you over with a flashy style, but he's solid defensively, Purpura would say. Give the kid some at-bats and he'll make a quick adjustment to the big leagues. Just wait.
Purpura, of course, would have been happy had any of the 25 players hit the game-winning home run on Sunday. But the fact that Burke did it made it just a bit more special.
"You see your players grow, mature and develop in an organization, and then he does something in this kind of a setting at home, in front of a packed house, in front of a national TV audience that's probably fallen asleep and come back after a few times," Purpura said. "All of a sudden, there's Chris Burke following Roger Clemens' at-bat and he hits the ball out of the ballpark.
"It's a credit to all of our people in scouting and development that they've been able to mold a guy like this. That's what makes it all worthwhile."
The word tossed around the most by uniformed personnel when asked to talk about Burke was 'fearless.'
"That's what I like about him," Purpura said. "There are a lot of people in baseball that would like to have Chris Burke on their club, because of that attribute that he has. He is fearless. He wants to be in the big situations. He wants to be the guy with the game on the line."
"Chris is stuck behind a future Hall of Famer," Brad Ausmus said. "He has done a great job in learning how to play left field. I think he's a guy who likes to come up in big situations. He's a guy who enjoys pressure situations."
Burke walks with confidence, but he isn't arrogant. He has a presence in the clubhouse, but he also respects his role as a young player among veterans. The Astros sensed, long before he made his big league debut last year, that he was a leader in the making. How much Sunday's heroics impact his future remains to be seen, but if nothing else, it was a positive step for the 25-year-old rookie.
"He's got a lot of confidence in himself, and he should," Jeff Bagwell said. "But he's a tremendous team player. He roots for everybody. He wants to learn, learn, learn about the game. Today, it was typical us -- somebody else came up big."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.