1981 - Season Recap
(c) Bob Hulsey
Unlike the 1960s and 1970s when a few teams dominated the National League, the 1980s saw a lot of teams take their turn at the top. The Astros, coming off their first division crown thought they might become the dominant team but injuries, age and fate conspired against them. Another factor was the sudden dismissal of General Manager Tal Smith whose deft personnel moves built the Astros into champions. His replacement, Al Rosen, lacked Smith's nose for role-players and the Astros spent several years thinking they needed one more player to get them over the hump.
Without question, the major story of the year was a players strike lasting nearly two months during the summer. The baseball lords decided to substitute an extra round of playoffs for the lost months of action. They took the division winners of each "half" of the remaining season and set up a best-of-five divisional playoff. The idea had some flaws. Cincinnati won more games than anyone but was shut out of the postseason because they won neither "half" of division play.
Free agency worked well for the Astros so they returned to the market the next year. They signed righthander Don Sutton, who had toiled as a Dodger for 15 years, and inked utilityman Dave Roberts. Morgan, his moral debt repaid, moved on to San Francisco as did Enos Cabell who was traded for lefthander Bob Knepper. With a glut of starting pitching, Ken Forsch was shipped to the California Angels for infielder Dickie Thon.
The Astros lost twelve of their first 15 games. The offense struggled. Knepper was the only one to get off to a good start, pitching back-to-back 1-0 shutouts. In one of the games, he had to supply his own run. Knepper became a source of controversy when a female reporter entered the Houston locker room. He refused to be interviewed until she left, saying women shouldn't be allowed in a room full of naked men. This wouldn't be the last time his views on women would become grist for the media.
Panicked by the lack of runs, Houston sent Dave Bergman and Jeff Leonard to the Giants for Mike Ivie. A former catcher, Ivie was moved from behind the plate when he developed a mental block about throwing the ball back to the pitcher. He finally found a home at first base and slammed 27 homers in 1979. The next year, he struggled and retired in midseason but came back to play again before being traded. Houston hoped they had found a power hitter to put in the middle of their lineup. Instead, Ivie appeared in just 19 games before being hospitalized for "mental exhaustion". He did not hit one home run as an Astro.
The offensive attack still managed a few highlights. Craig Reynolds tied a major league mark on May 16th when he hit three triples during a 6-1 victory over Chicago. Art Howe tripled on May 24th to set a club record with at least one hit in 23 straight games. His .375 average led the league at the time. Howe would end the year at .296 to lead the team.
In June, still trailing the Dodgers in the standings, Houston dealt pitcher Joaquin Andujar to St. Louis for outfielder Tony Scott, then sent infielder Rafael Landestoy to the Reds for first baseman-catcher Harry Spilman. On June 12th, the strike began with Houston under .500 at 28-29.
Play did not resume until August 10th when the Astros squeaked past the Giants in San Francisco. They began the "second season" by winning five of seven on the West Coast. The Astros made still another deal at the August 31st trade deadline, acquiring infielder Phil Garner from Pittsburgh for minor league infielder Johnny Ray.
Bob Knepper and Nolan Ryan picked up steam down the home stretch. Knepper completed a homestand sweep with a three-hit victory over the Mets on September 2nd. He would finish with five shutouts in just 22 starts and sport a 2.18 ERA.
Ryan blanked the Expos on September 4th. He beat the Giants later that month then faced the Dodgers in a critical game on September 26th that NBC televised as their "Game of the Week". Jose Cruz, as he did all season, supplied the offense while Terry Puhl made a great running catch in the seventh inning to provide the defense. The rest was all Nolan Ryan. He fanned eleven Dodgers and retired Dusty Baker for the final out to win, 5-0. The crowd went wild because Nolan had also just pitched the fifth no-hitter of his career, breaking the major league record he had shared with Sandy Koufax. Ryan would wind up with eleven victories in the abbreviated season and led the league with a 1.89 ERA.
The Astros backed into the "second half" title when the Reds lost on October 3rd. Houston was 33-20 in the fall campaign and 61-49 overall. If the two halves made one complete season, the Astros would have finished third that year behind the Reds and the Dodgers. Houston was helped more than anyone by the union's summer recess.
The Divisional Series... (full recap)
It was a tale of two cities when "first half" champion Los Angeles and "second half" winner Houston met to decide the division crown. In Houston, the Astros silenced the Dodger bats. Ryan tossed a two-hitter, winning 3-1 when Alan Ashby drilled a dramatic two-run homer to win the game. They blanked L.A. the next day when Denny Walling drove in the game-winner in a 1-0, eleven-inning triumph.
The roles reversed in Los Angeles. On consecutive days, Burt Hooton tossed a three-hitter, Fernando Valenzuela pitched a four-hitter and Jerry Reuss twirled a five-hitter as the Dodger put a sleeper hold on Houston's bats to win the series, 3-2. They would eventually win the World Series that year.
The Astros began the season in a hitting slump and ended it the same way. A lot of bodies came and went during the campaign, leaving fans to wonder what was in store next spring.
3rd place/1st place, NL West
Dec 4 1980 - signed Don Sutton(P) from LA-N as free agent
Dec 8 1980 - released Joe Morgan(IF)
Dec 10 1980 - signed Dave W. Roberts(IF) from Tex-A as free agent
Jan 1981 - Supplemental Free Agent Draft
Feb 10 1981 - traded Jimmy Sexton(IF) to Oak-A for Rick Lysander(P). Hou received Lysander on Oct 20
Feb 11 1981 - traded Bruce Bochy(C) to NY-N for Stan Hough and Randy Rogers. Hou received Hough and Rogers on Apr 3
Mar 27 1981 - released Julio Gonzalez(IF)
Apr 1 1981 - traded Chris Bourjos and cash to Bal-A for Kiko Garcia(IF)
Apr 3 1981 - traded Mike Fischlin(IF) to Cle-A for Jim Lentine(OF) and cash. Hou received Lentine on Sep 28
Jun 8 1981 - Summer Free Agent Draft
Oct 23 1981 - traded Pete Ladd(P) to Mil-A for Rickey Keeton