added 4/28/2015 by Bob Hulsey
Whee!!! Are we having fun yet?!?
The unexpected hot start by the Astros to the 2015 season is certainly a welcome sight to most of their longsuffering fans who stuck with them through the Nuclear Waste Years. There's a certain pinch-me giddyness going on in Astroland that almost defies description. Nobody wants to believe it is really happening, certainly not the rest of the division where a loss to the Astros is still regarded like a loss to the Bad News Bears.
It's been nine years since Houston fans were treated to a real championship race or a pennant run. Some younger fans probably don't know anything at all what this feels like. A few older fans do.
The 1979 Astros were a team of largely cast-offs and no-names. Yes, there was the dazzling Cesar Cedeno on the backside of his career. An aging Bob Watson was there as well. J.R. Richard was setting strikeout records but few others were household names outside Southeast Texas.
Cincinnati and Los Angeles owned the National League West that decade and the other four clubs were just playing for third place. The Astros could reach and sometimes pass .500, but there was no thought that they could aspire to more.
General Manager Tal Smith was constructing a team built around pitching, defense and speed. To that end, he acquired two key pieces that winter - shortstop and Houston native Craig Reynolds and catcher Alan Ashby, now one of the club's broadcasters.
Ken Forsch got the team started on a good note when he no-hit the Braves on the second day of the season. The Astros rode to a 15-6 April. After a losing May, the team roared back with a 20-8 record for June. By July 4th, they not only lead the NL West, but did so by 10 games!
"Who are these guys?," everyone asked. Jose Cruz and Joe Niekro found another gear late in their careers. Guys like Joaquin Andujar, Joe Sambito and Denny Walling suddenly began to showcase their talents. Manager Bill Virdon was winning the close and late games.
Around that time, Tom Seaver of the Reds predicted the Astros would drop like a lead balloon. They stumbled in the second half of the season, not like a lead balloon, but enough to let the Reds catch them in September and finish 1-1/2 games behind Cincinnati at the end. Even though the Astros won the division the next year, 1979 was the year Houston fans became giddy about their team. Few thought they had it in them.
This year's Astros have a similar vibe to them. Jed Lowrie is back and anchoring the infield. Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh are proving last year was no fluke. The bullpen is holding leads and Manager A.J. Hinch seems to be pressing a lot of the right buttons so far.
The rest of the league, certainly the AL West where the Astros now reside, are asking themselves "Who are these guys?"
One other side note is how the Astros' successes and failures seem historically to run in the same cycles as their other professional sports teams. The Astros and Rockets seem to have a certain biorhythm to them where their best seasons seem to cycle at about the same time. It as if one feeds off the success of the other, much like the 1981, 1986, 1994 and 1995 Rockets went to the NBA Finals, these were around the time the Astros also enjoyed peak years. That the Rockets are playing better than in recent years could be rubbing off on the Astros, just as yesteryear's teams did.
Maybe the Astros should consider signing Robert Horry just for his big-game moments.