2003 - Season Recap
by Ray Kerby and Bob Hulsey
After a disappointing campaign in 2002, the first with new manager Jimy Williams, the arrival of Spring Training restored hope among Houston fans that the team would enjoy playoff success in 2003. But the change in seasons was not the only cause for hope. During the off-season, General Manager Gerry Hunsicker made a big move, signing All-Star second baseman Jeff Kent to a three-year contract.
Kent's specialty was hitting, and he was just two years removed from an MVP season with the Giants in which he clouted 33 homers and rang up a .334 batting average. To say that fans were excited about the biggest free-agent signing since Nolan Ryan in 1980 would be an understatement. There was one problem, however, and that was what to do with the team's existing All-Star second baseman, Craig Biggio.
Since Kent was less flexible defensively, Biggio volunteered to play centerfield for the team. This allowed the team to move Lance Berkman to left field, where he was more suited, and to trade outfielder Daryle Ward to the Los Angeles Dodgers for pitching prospect Ruddy Lugo -- younger brother of shortstop Julio Lugo.
One last roster move shocked Astros fans on the last week of Spring Training: the release of Shane Reynolds. Reynolds had underperformed in the Spring, so the team decided to take a chance on youngster Jeriome Robertson. Although widely condemned at the time, the move would eventually turn out to be a good one.
Houston floundered through April with an 11-15 record, but soon turned things around with another personnel move. After shortstop Julio Lugo was arrested and charged with spousal abuse, owner Drayton McLane quickly released Lugo and gave young star Adam Everett a full-time job. The club quickly ran off two seven-game winning streaks and found themselves in first place in early June.
June 11th was a memorable day for the franchise. Playing at Yankee Stadium, the club was forced to use six relievers when starter Roy Oswalt left the game with an injury after the first inning. Remarkably, all seven pitchers held the Yankees hitless, resulting in one of the most unlikely no-hitters in baseball history. The pitching gem set a Major League record for most pitchers used in a no-hitter and also marked only the third opposing no-hitter in Yankee history. Octavio Dotel tied another Major League record when he struck out 4 batters in the 8th inning.
By the All-Star break, the Astros were leading the NL Central division by 1.5 games with a 50-44 record. Billy Wagner was the team's lone representative, tossing a scoreless inning against the American League stars.
Houston continued to play well but could not put much distance between themselves and the Chicago Cubs. It didn't help that Roy Oswalt, the team's best starter, was missing considerable time due to recurring hamstring injuries. By September 19th, the Astros were 15 games over .500 with a 84-69 record, but remained only 1.5 games ahead of the Cubs. That marked the point at which the wheels fell off for the team.
The club lost five of its next seven games, finding itself in a first-place tie with the Cubs with just three games remaining. Although the Astros had three games against a weak team in Milwaukee, the Cubs shared similar prospects against the hapless Reds. The entire season had come down to which of the two teams could win more games against a weak opponent with little incentive to play well.
The answer came quickly. Houston played inept ball, losing their first two games against the Brewers, while the Cubs quickly eliminated the Astros with two easy wins over the Reds. It was a disappointing end to a season that had been filled with promise.
For the season, Richard Hidalgo enjoyed an offensive rebound, swatting 28 homers and leading the team with a .309 average. Defensively, he racked up 22 outfield assists, breaking the decades-old team record held by Jim Wynn. For his superlative play, Hidalgo was named the team's Most Valuable Player.
Jeff Bagwell had another fine season with 39 homers and 100 RBI, although his average dropped to .278. Morgan Ensberg had a breakout season at third base with 25 homers and a .291 average. Lance Berkman and Jeff Kent also hit more than 20 homers, with 25 and 22, respectively. In his first full season, Adam Everett proved he could hit big league pitching with eight homers and a .256 average.
Despite a 5.10 ERA, Jeriome Robertson led the pitching staff with 15 wins, establishing a new team record for rookies. Tim Redding led the rotation with a 3.68 ERA, but settled for a disappointing 10-14 record. Wade Miller won 14 games and led the staff with 161 strikeouts. Roy Oswalt missed two months of the season with hamstring injuries, but still managed a 10-5 record and 2.97 ERA over 21 starts.
The bullpen was dominated by impressed performances from four pitchers, each tossing over 80 innings. Billy Wagner presided over his peers, logging 44 saves and an astounding 1.78 ERA. Octavio Dotel was 'automatic' in the setup role, finishing with a 2.48 ERA for the season. Youngsters Brad Lidge (3.60 ERA) and Ricky Stone (3.69 ERA) also pitched very well in relief.
If the 2003 season were a horse race, the Astros were the colt who faultered down the stretch. From July 8th until the last week of September, Houston was either in first place of the Central Division or within a game of it and it appeared the Astros would make their way into the post-season for the first time since Jimy Williams became the manager. However, in their lastl ten games, seven of them at home in the newly renamed Minute Maid Park, the Astros lost six and finished one game behind the Chicago Cubs at 87-75 without even creating drama for the final weekend.
The offense was more robust with the free agent signing of Jeff Kent, a former N.L. Most Valuable Player who took over at second base and hit .297 with 22 homers and 93 RBIs. Craig Biggio relinquished the position he had held since 1991 and moved to center field where his transition was dicey. Offensively, Biggio improved from his 2002 output to score 102 runs and swat 15 homers. Jeff Bagwell endured an awful slump in May and June to finish with 39 homers, 100 RBIs (both team highs) and a .278 average. Lance Berkman was steady with a .288 average, 26 homers and 93 RBIs. Richard Hidalgo overcame an offseason gunshot wound to hit .309 with 28 HRs and 88 RBIs. Hidalgo's output was a pleasant surprise but even more pleasant was the emergence of third baseman Morgan Ensberg who hit .291 with 25 homers and 60 RBIs in a platoon role. Houston scored runs in bunches, amassing nine or more runs in 25 of their wins, including an 18-4 massacre of the Dodgers on August 26th.
Starting pitching was the major problem for the Astros but Williams overcame this with a trio of hard-throwing relievers that allowed the sluggers to catch up in the late innings. Rookie Brad Lidge (6-3, 3.60 ERA) would give way to Octavio Dotel (6-4, 2.48) who would hand the ball to closer Billy Wagner (1-4, 1.78, 44 saves) in the ninth. Ricky Stone (6-4, 3.69) also saw extensive action as all four racked up at least 83 innings in relief.
Only one complete game was pitched all season as Williams leaned heavily on his bullpen and his pitch counts. With Wade Miller (14-13, 4.13) struggling and Roy Oswalt (10-5, 2.97) battling groin injuries, the two young aces of the rotation had difficult years. This left young Tim Redding (10-14, 3.68) and rookie lefthander Jeriome Robertson (15-9, 5.10) and anyone else Gerry Hunsicker could find to pick up the slack. Ron Villone (6-6, 4.13), an ex-Astro picked up from Arizona, settled into the fifth spot but not without the Astros trying Brian Moehler, Scott Linebrink, Jonathan Johnson, Rodrigo Rosario, Kirk Saarloos, Jared Fernandez and Pete Munro. Williams kept them on a short leash, handing the ball to the bullpen often before the seventh inning.
Perhaps no game better illustrated Williams' style than the no-hitter thrown at Yankee Stadium on June 11th. Oswalt left the game with a pulled groin in the second inning. On came a parade of Munro, Saarloos, Lidge, Dotel and Wagner to silence the mighty Yankees with no hits, 13 strikeouts and three walks altogether. A homer by Berkman and two doubles by Hidalgo did the rest in an 8-0 triumph. It was the first time in baseball history that six pitchers had combined on a no-hitter.
There were other milestones along the way. Biggio set the N.L. record for career leadoff homers on April 10th in a 4-2 win over Cincinnati. He reached 500 doubles for his career on July 10th, also in a victory over the Reds. Bagwell hit his 400th career home run, again at the expense of the Reds. Wagner became the franchise's all-time saves leader in a 2-1 victory over Tampa Bay. He would also set a new season mark with 44 saves. Linebrink got his first big league win after 51 appearances, 7-5 over the Cubs on May 23rd, only to be released the following day. Infielder Dave Matranga homered in his first big league at bat, June 27th against the Rangers, becoming just the second Astro to do so.
Despite injury woes and inconsistent hitting, it looked like the Astros would overcome the soft Central division until the final week where it all fell apart, causing home fans to boo and Wagner to charge management with not caring enough about winning. Wagner was then traded to Philadelphia - ironically the first domino in an offseason that would see the Astros attempt what Wagner had claimed they wouldn't do - making three major moves in an attempt to reach the postseason.
2nd place, NL Central
Nov 1 2002 - signed Jonathan Johnson(P) to a minor-league contract
Dec 16 2002 - Winter Major League Draft
Dec 16 2002 - traded Nelson Cruz(P) to Col-N for ml Victor Hall.
Dec 17 2002 - signed Tripp Cromer(IF) to a minor-league contract
Dec 18 2002 - signed Jeff Kent(IF) as a free agent
Dec 20 2002 - signed Jared Fernandez(P) to a minor-league contract
Jan 17 2003 - signed Brian Moehler(P) as a free agent
Jan 25 2003 - traded Daryle Ward(OF) to LA-N for Ruddy Lugo (P)
Mar 14 2003 - signed Bruce Chen(P) as a free agent
Mar 27 2003 - released Shane Reynolds(P)
May 1 2003 - designated Julio Lugo(IF) for assignment; released May 9th
May 3 2003 - released Bruce Chen(P)
May 18 2003 - signed Ron Villone(P) to a minor-league contract
May 24 2003 - designated Scott Linebrink(P) for assignment; claimed by SD-N on May 29th.
May 28 2003 - released Tripp Cromer(IF)
Jun 15 2003 - released Jonathan Johnson(P)
Jul 28 2003 - released Brian Hunter(OF)
Jul 29 2003 - traded PTBNL or cash considerations to NY-A for Dan Miceli(P).
Aug 1 2003 - released Pete Munro(P)
Aug 11 2003 - signed Mitch Meluskey(C) to a minor-league contract
Aug 14 2003 - signed Rick White(P) as a free agent
Aug 20 2003 - designated Gregg Zaun(C) for assignment; released Aug 25