The Astros learned they couldn't club opponents to death so they rebuilt with the two weapons a team in an artificial-turfed pitching-friendly ballpark needs: good pitching and team speed. By 1976, the ballclub had a new manager and general manager who went about shaping a team that could win without hitting the long ball. It brought them to the brink of a championship by the end of the decade.
new look accompanied the changes on the field. As various teams
tried to move beyond tradition baseball uniform designs, the new Astro
uniforms took a quantum leap beyond those efforts. The uniforms had multishade
stripes of orange, red and yellow in front and in back behind a large dark
blue star over the midsection. Similar stripes adorned the pant legs. Numbers
appeared on the back as well as on the right pant leg. The loud stripes
were meant to appear as a fiery trail like a rocket sweeping across the
heavens. Most critics deplored the design but it was soon being copied
at the high school and Little League levels - so it was not universally
panned. So unique were the threads that the Astros wore the same outfit
at home and on the road until 1980. After all, who was going to confuse
these guys for anyone else? A toned-down version of the stripes survived
until 1994, nearly 20 years after they were first introduced.
Cabell: Home at third.
Houston traded Lee May to Baltimore for heralded rookie second baseman Rob Andrews and a utility player named Enos Cabell. Andrews showed limited offensive ability and lasted just two years in Houston. Cabell, however, settled into the role of everyday third baseman after long looks at first base and in the outfield. He would become a critical member of the team's later success. With May gone, Bob Watson moved to first base where he led the team in batting average (.324) and RBIs (85).
Watson earned a unique place in baseball annals when he scored the 1,000,000th run in major league history. A baseball fan, with one of those new electronic calculators as a Christmas gift, went about adding up every run ever scored and realized that the one million mark was soon approaching. The Astros were in San Francisco on May 4th for an afternoon twinbill when the scoreboard said that baseball was just one run shy of the milestone. Watson stood on second when Milt May drilled a three-run homer. Although he could have trotted home, Watson ran full speed and crossed the plate mere seconds before Cincinnati's Dave Concepcion scored three time zones away.
Another player who was tried at several positions was Cliff Johnson. Unlike Cabell who was versatile at several spots, Johnson was tried at a number of positions because he wasn't good at any. But it was hard to keep his bat out of the lineup. After banging ten homers in 1974 during limited action, Johnson doubled that to twenty in 1975 to lead the team.
Johnson tied a big league mark on May 31st in Philadelphia when he got two extra-base hits in one inning. What made it unique was that he entered the inning as a pinch-hitter. After belting a double in the club-record twelve-run inning, Cliff smashed a home run in the same frame. The league refused to recognize the homer as a pinch-hit since Johnson had already batted in the game but, if they had, Johnson would have been the first pinch-hitter to accomplish the feat.
Another baseball rarity happened on July 30th. The only Astro to homer in his first major league at bat was a relief pitcher. Jose Sosa swatted a three-run shot off Danny Frisella of the San Diego Padres during an 8-4 victory.
The two biggest moves by Houston did not get much notice at the time and wouldn't be evident until later. For a paltry sum, the Astros bought 30-year-old pitcher Joe Niekro from Atlanta. The righthander had struggled for almost a decade in the major leagues while his older brother, Phil, excelled for the Braves. Phil began teaching Joe his knuckleball and Joe was just learning how to use it. In relief, Niekro won six games and saved four to go with a sharp 3.07 ERA.
The other player bought was outfielder Jose Cruz, who had trouble cracking the lineup in St. Louis. The 27-year-old Cruz got into the mix of left field applicants, hitting .257 with nine homers and six steals.
Larry Dierker earned a 14-16 mark to lead the club in victories. J. R. Richard blossomed to a 12-10 record but led the league with 138 walks. Nobody had more than five saves in relief.
Overall, the season was a disaster. The Astros tumbled to a 64-97 record, worse than any year of the expansion Colt .45s. The mark was the worst in the big leagues. Preston Gomez was fired late in the season and replaced by Bill Virdon, a former outfielder who had skippered the Pirates and the Yankees before coming to Houston. Under Virdon's guidance, the club played .500 ball during their final 34 games.
Houston's stay at the bottom didn't last long. Virdon retooled the lineup and the club rebounded to an 80-82 record and third place, still miles behind the Reds who were having one of the most dominant seasons in history.
Having a healthy Cesar Cedeno was one key reason for the turnaround. He led the club with 18 homers, drove in 83, batted .297 and swiped 58 bases. He returned to the All-Star Game where he slugged the first home run by an Astro in the Midsummer Classic. For the second time in his career, Cedeno hit for the cycle. It came during a five-RBI night on August 9th in St. Louis, part of a 13-4 victory.
Bob Watson continued his steady hitting, leading Houston with a .313 average and 102 RBIs, to go with 16 round-trippers. Enos Cabell added 35 steals and a .273 average. Jose Cruz became the regular left fielder, hitting .303 with 28 stolen bases.
The Houston attack surged at times, as it did on May 30th when they poked a club-record 25 hits in the nightcap of a doubleheader sweep in Atlanta. 23 of the hits were singles.
Joe Niekro had his own highlight the night before. Matched in a duel with his brother Phil, the younger brother banged a home run off his sibling in the seventh inning to take a 4-3 victory. It would be Joe's only homer during his 22-year career.
The club's elder statesman was 29-year-old Larry Dierker, not in age so much as in miles. He had become the last player on the club who could recall being a Colt .45. Larry had pitched a perfect game for eight innings against the Mets in 1966. He also pitched 8-2/3rds innings of no-hit ball against Atlanta during the pennant race of 1969. Both times, he not only lost the no-hitter but Houston lost the game too. On July 9th, at home against Montreal, the odds finally evened out for Dierker, who threw a no-hitter in a 6-0 triumph. Dierker would also win the 1,000th game at the Astrodome, blanking San Diego, 7-0, on July 26th. They were the last hurrahs of a wonderful playing career. Larry was dealt to St. Louis that off-season, reinjured his arm and soon found his way back to Houston as a baseball columnist and broadcaster.
One of the reasons the Astros sent Dierker to St. Louis was because they did not have a reliable catcher since Johnny Edwards' last good year in 1972. Brought aboard was Joe Ferguson, a tough guy who could hit. He had logged time in the outfield, unable to replace the starting catchers in Los Angeles and St. Louis. At the plate, he delivered 16 homers and 61 RBIs. Behind the plate, Ferguson was something of a liability. He didn't have the arm to throw out base stealers and he didn't show much skill at handling pitchers.
In fact, the Astros had a power resurgence as six players finished in double figures for home runs, led by Bob Watson's 22. The last one came on the last day of the season against the Dodgers and set a new club record for RBIs with 110. On June 24th against San Francisco, Watson also became the second player in team history to hit for the cycle. He drove in five runs on the night.
Jose Cruz also had a big year at the plate, batting .299 with 17 homers and 87 RBIs. Enos Cabell bulked up with a .282 average, 16 home runs and 68 runs driven in. Cesar Cedeno banged 14 homers and drove in 71 runs. The trio became the first National Leaguers where three men on one club each swiped 40 or more bases since 1911. Cedeno stole a club-record 61, Cruz 44 and Cabell 42.
The third spot in the outfield fell into the hands of a 20-year-old Canadian, Terry Puhl. He got his first big league hit in his debut against the Dodgers on July 13th. Watson would drive him in moments later for the 3-2 game-winner.
The middle of the infield had a rough year. A host of second basemen and shortstops were tried - none with great success. The best was a balding 30-year-old journeyman who was close to giving up on baseball before he finally got a chance in Houston. His name was Art Howe. The versatile Howe was willing to play anywhere just to get in the game. He hit .264 with 58 RBIs while sharing time at second, short and third.
The Astros had never had a dominant lefthander in their pitching rotation and wouldn't until the end of the century. They thought they might have one in Floyd Bannister. After finishing at the bottom in 1975, the Astros had the top pick in the 1976 June draft. They chose Bannister, a southpaw from Arizona State, and brought him up to Houston the following year. He was 8-9 with a 4.03 ERA and was inconsistent.
Another pitcher who was given a shot as a starter was Mark Lemongello. Despite the cheery name, Lemongello was best known for his fits of anger in the clubhouse, particularly when he lost. His tirades were legendary, once going so far as to chew his pitching shoulder in self-abuse. Cruelly, the Astros would trade him to the expansion Toronto Blue Jays after a pair of 9-14 seasons.
J. R. Richard again led the hurlers with 18 wins. Joe Niekro and Joaquin Andujar both had winning marks. But the pitching staff still offered more questions than answers and the club ended at 81-81, third place in the division.
The Astros appeared to have a ceiling above them in more ways than one. While the Reds and Dodgers took turns dominating the division throughout the decade, the Astros seemed to be stuck in the neutral. 1978 proved to be a down year as the Astros fell to fifth place with a 74-88 mark. Part of the problem was money. The Astros were not active in the newly-formed free agent market and could not afford to bring in players who would cost a lot. Most of the Houston stars were developed by the club or acquired cheap like used cars. Ford Motor Credit Co. was actively searching for a buyer.
no depth to overcome ailments. Cesar Cedeno was lost for most of the season
with a knee injury. Art Howe suffered a broken finger. The catching situation
was a mess. So needy were they at one point that the Astros flew Luis Pujols
in by helicopter from the minors where he was promptly dropped into action.
Pujols batted .131 the rest of the season.
Richard: Righty strikeout record.
Jose Cruz took over as the leader on offense with a .315 average, 83 RBIs and 37 steals. Bob Watson, on a bit of a down year, still led the club with 14 homers. Enos Cabell set a club record with 195 hits. He also batted .295, drove in 71 runs and stole 33 bases.
The only man on the pitching staff who had an outstanding season was J.R. Richard. He fired back-to-back shutouts in May. In his last outing on September 28th against Atlanta, he struck out six to give him 303 strikeouts for the season. He was the first National League righthander to reach that plateau. To cap his day, J. R. homered off Larry McWilliams and won his 18th game of the year.
The Astros had a Hollywood ending to a game at Los Angeles on April 21st. Up by two with two men on in the bottom of the ninth, Watson stabbed a liner at first base and stepped on the bag for the second out. He then fired to Roger Metzger at second base who beat the Dodger runner to the bag, completing a triple play to win the ballgame. But Hollywood would wear Dodger Blue the rest of the season as L. A. won the National League crown.
While the year was lackluster, the pieces were beginning to fall into place for the future. Denny Walling, Dave Bergman and Rafael Landestoy were becoming talented reserves. Joe Niekro and Ken Forsch were turning into dependable starting pitchers. Lefty Joe Sambito was getting comfortable as the bullpen closer. The Astros were getting nearer to challenging for the first pennant in their history.
Two key spots were yet to be filled but the solutions were quick in coming. The Astros sent Floyd Bannister to Seattle for shortstop Craig Reynolds, a Houston native. They also acquired catcher Alan Ashby in the Mark Lemongello deal with Toronto. The pair solidified these two positions with strong defense and clutch hitting.
Long-suffering Houston fans might have sensed that this year would be different when Ken Forsch no-hit the Atlanta Braves in just the second game of the season. It is the earliest no-hitter by calendar date in big league history.
The team got more good news on May 10th when Dr. John McMullen agreed to buy the Astros. A limited partner with the Yankees, he wanted to be the owner of his own club, stating that nothing was more limited than being a limited partner of boss George Steinbrenner.
Houston closed the month with a win over Cincinnati, 3-0, on a three-run homer by Jose Cruz, to take first place away from the Reds. The Astros took a big gamble, trading Bob Watson to Boston in June for two minor league pitchers. Cesar Cedeno took Watson's spot at first, Terry Puhl moved to center and Jeff Leonard took over in right field. It was Cedeno's first infield assignment since 1971.
By the end of June, the Astros were beginning to think the unthinkable. They came to Cincinnati during the July 4th weekend for a showdown with the Reds. They were not only leading the Western Division, they were threatening to run away with it. Fireworks exploded on the Fourth. Leading 2-1, the Reds taunted pitcher Joaquin Andujar which led to a brawl featuring Cedeno and Ray Knight. Houston fought back the way a sportsman should, taking the lead on a single from Cruz. At last, Joe Sambito came in to close it out. The Astros left with the first ten-game lead in franchise history. They had won 14 of 16 games to do it. Tom Seaver of Cincinnati was quoted as saying that when the Astros stopped getting the breaks, they'd drop through the division like a lead pipe. For a team that had never been exposed to pennant pressure, Seaver's words were like a gathering cyclone. Houston soon dropped seven straight games and the thoughts of running away with the division vanished.
The Dodgers were also unhappy with these young upstarts. During a three-hit win for Forsch at the Dome on July 28th, the Dodgers taunted Cedeno who nearly emptied the benches with a hard throw at the Los Angeles dugout. When Cabell was hit by a pitch later that inning, the fight was on. Sambito injured a hand when he took on Dusty Baker. Houston's lead was shrinking and tempers were hotter than a Texas summer
Virdon's recipe of pitching and speed was working. Seven players notched ten or more steals. Four of them stole 30 or more. Cruz and Cabell both got their 30th on August 5th when the Astros edged the Braves and set a club record with seven thefts.
It was a breakthrough year for Joe Niekro who mixed his knuckleball and breaking pitches for a 21-11 record and a 3.00 ERA. J. R. Richard won 18 games and increased his strikeout record to 313. Andujar had twelve victories and Forsch added eleven. Sambito established himself as the bullpen closer, earning 22 saves.
Richard hit a home run against the Mets on September 1st and pitched a complete game to move the Astros back into first place. Home runs were rare for the Astros who slugged just 49 during the season. Cruz led the club with a dead-ball-era-like total of nine. Five National League teams hit more triples that year than Houston hit homers. One of those five was the Astros themselves.
Houston was more than ready for pennant fever. The sudden success of the Astros, coupled with a similar rise from the ashes by the football Oilers, had the city buzzing with excitement. The final month was a nail-biter. The Astros dropped a two-game series in Cincinnati to fall 1-1/2 games behind the Reds. They split a pair at the Dome later that month as the Reds kept their lead. It would end that way. Houston finished 89-73, their best record to date, and 1-1/2 games behind Cincinnati. It was a thrilling ride but not like what they'd see the next year.