ATLANTA - The final, lasting image of the Braves' 2005 season is one part chill-inducing, one part fitting.
It's of 22-year-old Joey Devine leaning against the tunnel wall beneath Houston's Minute Maid Park, dabbing tears from his eyes with a crumpled paper napkin.
Devine had just given up Chris Burke's Division Series-winning home run for Houston after 18 innings and just shy of six hours of baseball, sealing Atlanta's latest chapter of painstaking ways to end a season.
The Braves haven't advanced to the League Championship Series since 2001, and the Astros have now sent the Braves home in consecutive years.
Devine's honest, open display was poignant in that during spring training, or even on Opening Day, no one except the Braves' scouts would have had the slightest clue who Devine was.
And yet, it was the club's first-round pick in the 2005 draft - North Carolina State's closer through mid-May - on the mound in a crucial situation, a symbolic rallying cry that resonates what this year's "Baby Braves" were all about.
Devine included, 18 rookies were used at one point or another to add No. 14 to the franchise's run of consecutive division titles.
However, 90 regular-season victories and one in the postseason were difficult to think of Monday as several Braves cleaned out their lockers at Turner Field. Not with the remnants of Houston's marathon win Sunday still thick in the air.
But manager Bobby Cox didn't want to downplay what the youngsters had done, with help from veterans such asRafael Furcal, John Smoltz and Andruw Jones.
"All I know is I couldn't be more proud of the team doing what they did this year," Cox said. "We could have easily finished dead last, with everything that happened."
Chipper Jones said heartbreak was the best way to describe the season ending Sunday by virtue of the longest postseason game ever to be played, both in terms of innings and time elapsed.
"It's like a dream," Jones said, "like a real bad dream."
The nightmare had wandered into the rookies' heads, too.
"It just doesn't seem like yesterday happened," right fielder Jeff Francoeur said. "It's weird to think about it."
Terry McGuirk, the team's chairman and president, called the Braves' 7-6 loss, in which a 6-1 eighth-inning lead evaporated, "wretched."
Cox said he had difficulty sleeping Sunday night. So did Julio Franco.
"This will go down as one of the greatest games in baseball history," Franco said. "To me, it's one of the worst games that could ever happened because we lost. It's one of those games you'll see years later, 20 years later, and deep in your mind you'll think about how you lost the game."
Say, the five-run lead Kyle Farnsworth blew in the eighth and ninth innings. Or the 18 baserunners Atlanta left on during the course of the day. Or perhaps Roger Clemens' dramatic entrance for three scoreless innings on two days' rest to pick up the victory.
"I know the fans are frustrated about another loss. I'm sure they're pretty disappointed," rookie outfielder Ryan Langerhans said. "However they feel, though, we're just as mad and just as frustrated about the whole ordeal."
But the fans can take solace in the future of the team behind talented, young players like Langerhans, Francoeur, Brian McCann and Kyle Davies.
"We're in good hands," Chipper Jones said. "There's an abundance of talent here."
Added McGuirk: "It's a different place than we've been in past years. There's a lot to look forward to, with all these young guys."
Re-signing Furcal, now a free agent, also remains a priority. Cox said GM John Schuerholz is already working on keeping him in a Braves uniform.
"John's been working on that as hard as he can," Cox said.
- Brian Jordan said he'll officially decide whether he'll retire after having his knee cleaned up this week in Colo-rado.
Reach Travis Haney at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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