October 20, 2004
Astros October Nightmares
Can the '04 Team Give Houston Its First Pennant?The following article originally appeared in The New York Sun, and is reprinted here with permission. Baseball Prospectus provides content for the Sun throughout the baseball season.
As the baseball world obsesses over every detail of the ALCS, there's another fine series going on. And for all of New England's hand-wringing, Red Sox Nation does not hold a patent on postseason disappointment. Houston's near-misses in the National League's Championship Series of 1980 and 1986 were about as agonizing as any a fan of any team could endure.
Having already won the franchise's first playoff series ever in dispensing with the Braves, it isn't news that this year's Astros team is already on the cusp of achieving what no other Astros club has done in reaching the World Series. Certain storylines have emerged: What will Carlos Beltran do next, or how nice it is that Craig Biggio or Jeff Bagwell may finally have a championship on the line when they play. And fans in either Boston or New York will be seething if or when Roger Clemens takes the mound against their team in an Astros uniform.
But this year's squad isn't the first great Astros team, nor is it the only one laden with stars who have labored for years without the sort of major market accolades that get generously ladled over some stars. As tremendous as the Astros have been in both the Divisional and now the Championship Series this year, they've given their fans an epic and bitter playoff tradition of their own.
In 1980, in what's generally referred to as the greatest postseason series that nobody saw, the Astros went toe-to-toe with a Phillies team that had been a contender for years. Where the Phillies--featuring future Hall of Famers like third baseman Mike Schmidt and lefty ace Steve Carlton--were favored, the Astros were plucky underdogs, having won their first division title.
Houston had its own stars, notably Joe Niekro and Nolan Ryan, after having lost their best starter, J.R. Richard, in his prime to a stroke at mid-season. Before Minute Maid, the Astros played in the Astrodome, historically one of the most difficult places to hit, so their lineup tended to be overlooked. Jose Cruz and Cesar Cedeno were among the best-hitting outfielders in the league, but the Astrodome masked their productivity. The roster was peopled with names familiar to us today: ESPN's Joe Morgan had a nice season at the tail end of his Hall of Fame career playing second, future manager Art Howe played first, and long-time Padres skipper Bruce Bochy was a young backup catcher.
Four games of the best-of-five series went into extra innings. Niekro pitched a 10-inning shutout in Game Three, but wound up with a no-decision; the Astros won in the bottom of the 11th. In the climactic Game Five, the Astros went into the eighth with Nolan Ryan on the mound, a 5-2 lead, and the bottom of Philadelphia's order up. Ryan didn't retire another hitter, instead allowing three singles before walking Pete Rose with the bases loaded. The Phillies scored five runs. Houston would tie the game in the bottom of the eighth, but went on to lose in the 10th inning.
The 1986 Astros might be overshadowed by a postseason made historic by events like Bill Buckner's boot or Dave Henderson's home run in the Red Sox' last visit to the World Series, but they also played one of the great postseason series for the ages. Having ravaged the old NL West with a blend of power pitching and a balanced offensive attack, the Astros went into the NLCS with the league's best pitcher set up for three starts against the Mets. (Like the '80 team, future managers were on the bench: Davey Lopes was a utility man, and current Astros skipper Phil Garner was a platoon player at third).
As before, the Astros made it a great series, pushing the Mets into a corner by winning both of Scott's starts in the first four games, setting up a potential series-ending win by the virtually unbeatable Scott in Game Seven if the Astros could win either of Games Five or Six. Playing with a desperation born of the knowledge that Scott had their number, the Mets eked out two extra-inning wins. In Game Five, they won in the bottom of the 12th when Astros reliever Charlie Kerfeld blew a rundown after picking off Wally Backman; in Game Six, Houston's Dave Smith blew a 3-0 ninth-inning lead, sending the game into extras. The teams traded runs in the 14th before the Mets scored three in the top of the 16th (then allowed two in the bottom) to win one of the most memorable playoff games of all-time.
There was plenty of carryover on both teams, of course. Ryan was the third starter on both teams (moving up a peg after Richard's tragedy in '80). Cruz was at his best in '80, but produced his last good season in '86. Players like catcher Alan Ashby, closer Dave Smith, outfielder Terry Puhl, third baseman Denny Walling, and shortstop Craig Reynolds had roles on both clubs.
Will this be the first season that Astros fans don't suffer another October without a pennant? With two games to go in the NLCS, we'll find out if this is the team that can do what the teams of 1980 and 1986 did not.