1998 - Season Recap
(c) Bob Hulsey
As a free agent, Darryl Kile could sign with whatever team he chose. Coming off an outstanding year, Kile chose the thin air of the Colorado Rockies. It made him wealthy but it also messed with the pitches he had worked so hard to perfect. His decision to leave Houston set in motion a series of moves that would have a major impact on the Astros' fortunes.
To further upset the order of things, the National League added two more teams. One was the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks. The other was the Milwaukee Brewers who moved over from the American League at the suggestion of Milwaukee owner Bud Selig, the de facto Commissioner of Baseball since before the 1994 strike. In 1998, Selig turned the club over to his daughter and became full-time commissioner. The Brewers would join the Central Division.
Latest wunderkind Bob Abreu was left exposed in the expansion draft. He was claimed by Tampa Bay and immediately traded to Philadelphia where he began tormenting his former teammates. Taking his place was fellow Venezuelan Richard Hidalgo, who became Houston's next "can't miss" outfield hopeful.
Better news came with the trade of reliever John Hudek to the Mets for outfielder Carl Everett. The switch-hitter had acquired a bad reputation in New York but he showed the potential to be a great centerfielder. He would at least be an upgrade over Chuckie Carr. Another outfielder acquired was Moises Alou, fresh from a surprising World's Championship in Florida. The Astros gave up two highly-prized pitchers and a catching prospect to get Alou, whose father Felipe managed the Expos and whose uncle Jesus was an Astro twenty years earlier. Alou was expected to protect Bagwell in the batting order.
The team now had firepower throughout the lineup. Former Expos Alou and Sean Berry paced a 15-0 blowout of Montreal on April 26 with Moises driving in five against his dad's team. Alou and Bagwell each swatted a pair of homers in a 17-2 mauling of the Chicago White Sox in interleague play on June 30th. Both homered the next night in a 10-4 drubbing. Everett drove in five on August 24 to pace a 12-3 whipping of the Cubs.
Dierker's squad led the league with 874 runs and 818 RBIs. Alou paced the ballclub with 38 home runs and 124 RBIs to go with a .312 average. Bagwell belted 34 long balls, drove in 111 and batted .304. Derek Bell hit .314 with 22 homers, 41 doubles and 108 RBIs. Houston had six players in double figures for home runs, eight players with ten or more steals and seven players who hit .296 or higher. As a team, the Astros posted a .280 batting average.
It was a special year for Craig Biggio. On May 16th, it was Biggio's turn to be the hero when his ninth-inning homer dropped Atlanta, 3-2. As a leadoff man, there was none better. Craig clubbed 20 home runs, drove in 88, scored 123 times, led the club with a .325 average and set a club record with 210 hits. On September 23rd, Biggio became only the second player in major league history to stroke 50 doubles and steal 50 bases, in one season. The only other man was Boston's Tris Speaker in 1912.
The strength of Houston's lineup makes it even more improbable that they could be completely dominated by a rookie pitcher, but it happened. Chicago's Kerry Wood allowed just one Houston hit on May 6th while striking out 20 in what may be said to be the most powerful pitching performance of all time.
The proficient Houston bats might have made news were it not for Mark McGwire's 70 home runs and Sammy Sosa's 66, both breaking the big league mark of 61 set the year before the Colt .45s were born. The two sluggers, Central Division rivals, got little help from Houston pitchers. McGwire touched the Astros for five homers, Sosa just three. Seven of those eight long balls were with the bases empty.
What worried the Astros was how well their pitching would hold up. Shane Reynolds was having a fine season. He would post a 19-8 record. Jose Lima, who dared the Astros to let him start rather than pitch from the bullpen went from 1-6 to 16-8. Sean Bergman and Mike Hampton won twelve and eleven games respectively. All four had ERAs under 4.00.
The fear was that they wouldn't measure up to the dominant pitching of Atlanta and San Diego, the other two top teams in the league. With fearsome 6'-10" lefty Randy Johnson of Seattle looking ahead to free agency, the Astros sent three prospects to Seattle at the trading deadline to have his services for the final two months of the season. It was a surprising deal for the budget-conscious Astros and it signaled to the league that Houston intended to reach the World Series this time.
Johnson stepped off a plane in Pittsburgh and won his first game as an Astro, 6-2. It only got better after that. He shut out Philadelphia in his home debut. He then blanked Milwaukee with another five-hitter. Johnson outdueled Atlanta's Greg Maddux on September 2nd. He blanked the Reds five days later. On September 23rd, he topped the Cardinals, 7-1, to go 10-1 with four shutouts and a puny 1.26 ERA while averaging ten strikes per game. This was exactly what the Astros wanted - someone they could give the ball to in critical games and come away with a win.
The Astros broke the 100-win mark for the first time in their history, closing with a 102-60 record. Atlanta won 106 to lead the league. Houston left the Central Division in its dust, outpacing the Cubs by 12-1/2 games. The city breathed baseball as never before. While 98-win San Diego came to town to open the NLDS, many looked past them to a rematch with the Braves.
The NLDS... (full recap)
Johnson got the ball for Game One with the Astrodome crowd behind him. He allowed a run in the sixth then a home run to Greg Vaughn in the eighth. Meanwhile, Kevin Brown was almost unhittable. He struck out 16 Astros to set a playoff record then watched as Trevor Hoffman wriggled out of trouble for a 2-1 Padre victory.
The Astros broke out to a 4-2 lead in Game Two behind three RBIs from Bagwell and a solo homer by Bell. They appeared to be home free when Billy Wagner, a 30-save performer despite missing a month of the season when a line drive struck his head, came on in the ninth inning to close out the game. Jim Leyritz reached out and poked a two-run homer to tie it. Panic set in. It was the unheralded Spiers who came through in the bottom of the ninth off Hoffman to give Houston a 5-4 triumph and tie the series at one game apiece.
Hampton traded five scoreless innings in Game Three with Kevin Brown who was pitching on two days' rest. After the Padres scored in the sixth, Biggio tied the game in the seventh. Jim Leyritz homered off Scott Elarton to put San Diego back in front to stay. The Padres managed just three hits but it was enough to manufacture a 2-1 victory.
Johnson was back on the hill for Game Four but he was surpassed by Sterling Hitchcock and the San Diego bullpen which allowed only three hits. Bagwell tied the game in the fourth with a run-scoring single but the rest of the offense was held in check. The Padres exploded for four runs in the eighth to put the game and the series away.
The Bagwell-Biggio-Bell trio hit only .146 in the series and Alou was held to three meaningless hits. The Astros had blown their best chance ever to win a National League crown and it happened rather silently in just four games. They expected their season to last longer than October 4th.
1st place, NL Central
Nov 24 1997 - signed Dave Clark(OF) from Chi-N as free agent
Nov 26 1997 - signed Doug Henry(P) from SF-N as free agent
Dec 9 1997 - signed Jack Howell(IF) from Cal-A as free agent
Dec 15 1997 - signed Bob Scanlan(P) to a minor-league contract
Dec 21 1997 - granted free agency to Chuck Carr(OF)
Jan 9 1998 - signed Pete Schourek(P) from Cin-N as free agent
Jan 9 1998 - signed Reggie Harris(P) from Phi-N as free agent
May 4 1998 - signed Joe Slusarski(P) as a free agent
May 12 1998 - signed Pete Incaviglia(OF) as a free agent
Jun 2 1998 - Summer Free Agent Draft (full listing)
Jun 3 1998 - sent Luis Rivera(IF) to KC-A for cash
Jul 4 1998 - traded Ramon Castro(C) to Fla-N for Jay Powell(P) and Scott Makarewicz(C)
Aug 6 1998 - sent Pete Schourek(P) to Bos-A for cash
Oct 15 1998 - granted free agency to Ray Montgomery(OF)
Oct 15 1998 - granted free agency to J.R. Phillips(IF), who signed with Col-N on Dec 18
Oct 16 1998 - granted free agency to Reggie Harris(P), who signed with Mil-N on Dec 4
Oct 16 1998 - released Pete Incaviglia(OF)
Oct 23 1998 - granted free agency to Mike Magnante(P), who signed with Ana-A on Jan 27
Oct 26 1998 - granted free agency to Sean Berry(IF), who signed with Mil-N on Dec 10
Oct 28 1998 - granted free agency to Randy Johnson(P), who signed with Ari-N on Dec 10