2001 - Season Recap
(c) Ray Kerby
After ending the 2000 season with a dismal 72-90 record, a reasonable fan might think a shakeup was in order to get the team back on track for the 2001 season. However, little was done in the offseason. The team was frugal with free-agent signings, acquiring cheap veterans like Charlie Hayes and Jose Vizcaino, along with rehab projects Mike Jackson and Kent Bottenfield. Only one significant trade was made: dealing outfielder Roger Cedeno and hot-tempered Mitch Meluskey to Detroit in exchange for Brad Ausmus, Doug Brocail and Nelson Cruz. So after a two-year hiatus from Houston, Ausmus was returning to replace the young catcher whom the team had earlier expected to take his job.
The season started as 2000 ended with the team playing .500 ball for the first two months of the season. Craig Biggio immediately dispelled concerns about his return from the Disabled List, picking up five hits on the first day of the season, the first five-hit game of his career. Biggio showed no ill effects from surgery, playing 155 games and rapping 180 hits, including the 2000th of his career on May 4th.
Wade Miller was phenomenal in April, cashing in a 4-1 record and two high-strikeout performances against the Brewers for an "NL Pitcher of the Month" award. Miller would struggle afterwards, posting a 4.60 ERA over the next three months before regaining his form in August.
In contrast, the other starters struggled mightily from Day One. Shane Reynolds began the season on the Disabled List and did not start pitching effectively until June. Kent Bottenfield, Jose Lima, and Scott Elarton pitched poorly all season. By the end of July, none of the three pitchers were still in the rotation, forcing GM Gerry Hunsicker to break with tradition by tapping into the team's talented minor league rotations.
Roy Oswalt was promoted in May and was simply amazing the entire season. Until he was sidelined in September with a pulled hamstring, his 14-3 record and 2.73 ERA made him a serious contender for Rookie of the Year. Tim Redding made a good impression after his callup, striking out a batter per inning, but was inconsistent and was sent down for more seasoning. Carlos Hernandez was another winner, compiling a 1.02 ERA in three starts before injuring his shoulder on a head-first slide.
Hunsicker had some luck with his mid-season pickups as well. Dave Mlicki, acquired from Detroit in a one-for-one deal for Lima, pitched effectively at times and finished with a 7-3 record for the team. Pedro Astacio was acquired at the trading deadline for Scott Elarton and threw four quality starts in four starts before going on the Disabled List for the first time in his career. One small consolation was that the four quality starts by Astacio exceeded what Elarton had accomplished in his twenty starts for the team.
It was a mid-season pickup for the offense, however, that generated the most excitement. When Chris Truby began to struggle as the everyday third baseman, Hunsicker beat out the Cubs and signed free agent Vinny Castilla, who had just been released by Tampa Bay. Castilla turned his career around in Houston, hitting 23 homers and driving in 82 runs in just 122 games with the team. His best day came on July 28th, when Castilla hit three homers against the Pirates and saw a potential fourth homer robbed by a leaping catch from center fielder Brian Giles. Giles would go on to spoil the game for the entire team that day, hitting a game-winning grand slam in the bottom of the ninth, capping an incredible seven-run, 9th inning comeback against Houston.
By the All-Star break, the team's powerful offense and retooled starting rotation made it clear that the team was a contender once again. Lance Berkman, Moises Alou and Billy Wagner were named to the All-Star team, and deservedly so. Alou and Wagner had typically great seasons, with Alou batting .331 and Wagner tying the club record with 39 saves. It was the play of Berkman, however, that turned the most heads. Batting .331 with 34 homers, the young switch-hitter from Rice University established himself as a bona fide major league slugger. In addition, Berkman was versatile in the field, starting 40 games in center field.
Houston finally caught up with the faltering Cubs in mid-August, setting the stage for another great race for the NL Central Championship. On September 11th, though, the terrorist attacks in New York City placed our National Pasttime in perspective. All baseball games were delayed for a week as fans and players struggled to cope with the most vicious attack on American soil in U.S. history. The game returned soon and helped the nation return to normalcy.
When the Giants arrived in Houston on October 2nd, the Astros were mired in a losing slump and the red-hot Cardinals had moved to within one game. Barry Bonds was on a historic chase to set a new single-season home run record, just three seasons after Mark McGwire's historic chase. After getting unceremoniously swept by the Giants, Houston found itself in second place, one game behind the Cardinals. Manager Larry Dierker was facing heavy criticism for pitching around Bonds, and the Houston bandwagon was nearly empty. Only the die-hard fans, it seemed, still held out hope for the team.
The Clincher... (full recap)
With the season slipping from their grasp, the Astros traveled to St. Louis for their final three games of the season. Despite being one game behind the Cardinals, the Astros held the divisional tie-breaker and could win the NL Central title by winning two of the three road games. What came next was the most thrilling game of the season. Wade Miller gave up only one run, but St. Louis ace Matt Morris held Houston scoreless for seven innings. The Astros finally broke through in the 8th to tie the game and Lance Berkman hit a right-handed homer, his first of the season, in the top of the 9th to give Houston a 2-1 lead. Billy Wagner then induced a bases-loaded double play grounder in bottom of the 9th to move Houston into a first place tie. After losing the following game, the Astros sent Shane Reynolds to the mound to pitch for the division crown against ex-Astro Darryl Kile. There was little drama, however, as Houston clubbed the Cardinals, 9-2, in a game where the loser was still guaranteed a wildcard spot in the playoffs. But with the last-minute turnaround, Houston seemed to regain its earlier momentum just in time to face their October nemesis, the Atlanta Braves.
The NLDS... (full recap and photo gallery)
The playoffs turned out to be a monumental disappointment. Despite having home field advantage against Atlanta, the Astros were swept from the playoffs in three games. In Game One, the bullpen could not hold a 3-2 lead as Atlanta rallied for four runs in the 8th. The biggest error came when Julio Lugo booted what would have been an inning-ending double play. Immediately after that, Billy Wagner entered the game and made the second-biggest error, giving up a three-run homer to Chipper Jones on the first pitch he threw. After the 7-4 loss, the second-guessing finally got to Dierker, causing him to snap at the media during the post-game interview.
In Game Two, Dave Mlicki made an emergency start for the injured Roy Oswalt and pitched well, giving up only one unearned run in five innings. Unfortunately, Atlanta starter Tom Glavine handcuffed Houston, shutting the offense down and giving Atlanta a 2-0 series lead with a 1-0 victory. The lone run came courtesy of a throwing error by Lugo in the second inning.
In the playoff finale, Shane Reynolds tried to repeat his playoff-clinching performance but came up short, giving up four runs in four innings. In all fairness, the team continued to struggle offensively in October, picking up just two runs against John Burkett in the 6-2 loss. And just like that, the season was suddenly over.
Despite the team's fine rebound from the abysmal 2000 season, it didn't take long for a shakeup to occur. Manager Larry Dierker soon resigned, saying that he had taken the team as far as he could take it. While speculation was rampant that his resignation was forced, both Dierker and the team denied it. Jimy Williams was named as the team's new manager on November 1st.
With the exit of Dierker, a longtime fan favorite, it represented the beginning of a new era for the team.
1st place, NL Central
Nov 1 2000 - signed Alan Zinter(C) to a minor-league contract
Nov 6 2000 - signed Jim Mann(P) to a minor-league contract
Nov 7 2000 - signed Ricky Stone(P) to a minor-league contract
Nov 22 2000 - signed Jose Vizcaino(IF) as free agent
Dec 18 2000 - signed Mike Jackson(P) as a free agent
Dec 18 2000 - signed Chris Tremie(C) to a minor-league contract
Dec 21 2000 - granted free agency to Joe Slusarski(P), who signed with Atl-N on Apr 1
Dec 21 2000 - granted free agency to Marc Valdes(P), who signed with Atl-N on Jan 12
Jan 2 2001 - signed Charlie Hayes(IF) to a minor-league contract
Jan 3 2001 - signed Kent Bottenfield(P) as a free agent
Mar 28 2001 - signed Scott Servais(C) to a minor-league contract
Apr 12 2001 - lost Jose Cabrera(P) to Atl-N on waivers
May 11 2001 - signed Joe Slusarski(P) to a minor-league contract
May 15 2001 - signed Vinny Castilla(IF) as a free agent
Jul 9 2001 - released Charlie Hayes(IF)
Aug 13 2001 - lost Mendy Lopez(IF) to Pit-N on waivers
Oct 8 2001 - granted free agency to Brian Powell(P), who signed with Det-A on Dec 19
Oct 10 2001 - granted free agency to Joe Slusarski(P)