As happened after the 1980 season, the Astros tried to return to glory after the 1986 season and settle the unfinished business of reaching the World Series. But they got off to a bad start, aged quickly and hit bottom after a few fruitless bids. Old favorites like Nolan Ryan, Jose Cruz, Terry Puhl and Alan Ashby moved on, sometimes against their wishes. But the moves made room for the new decade's heroes.
Changes were taking place off the field too. The Astrodome underwent a facelift which included the elimination of its giant scoreboard in 1988 to make room for additional seating. Dr. John McMullen actively sought to sell the team and rumors of a pending move out of Houston soon resurfaced. After 25 years, the Astros were less stable financially than in the beginning yet the on-field prospects were as stable as they had ever been.
To summarize the frustrating title defense, a look at Nolan Ryan's statistics might explain a lot. Ryan led the league in ERA (2.76) and strikeouts (270) yet lost twice as often as he won, finishing with an 8-16 record. He would have also led the league in losses if it weren't for teammate Bob Knepper, who lost 17.
Knepper's ERA ballooned more than two runs a game to 5.27. The low point came on June 3rd in Chicago when he surrendered nine runs in the first inning en route to a 22-7 loss. The two pitchers alone represented a 13-game setback from the year before.
won 16 games while Jim Deshaies tallied eleven but they were alone among
starters with winning records. The bullpen story was similar. Larry Andersen
and Dave Smith had outstanding years but Charley Kerfeld hurt his elbow
and was ineffective all season.
Smith: Stingy relief.
Smith went two months before giving up an earned run, averaged almost 1.5 strikeouts per inning and saved 24 games. His ERA was a stingy 1.65 for the season.
The hitters had a somewhat solid year although there were no outstanding performances. Six Astros reached double figures in home runs, led by Glenn Davis who hit 27. Five regulars hit .280 or above led by Billy Hatcher with a .296 average. Hatcher led the team in steals with 53. Bill Doran, Kevin Bass and Alan Ashby all turned in solid seasons at the plate.
The magic that Hal Lanier seemed to have the year before crashed in around him. Houston struggled to stay above .500, finally landing in third place with a 76-86 record, a 20-game drop from the year before.
The plunge led to the introduction of two young players to the lineup. After trading third baseman Phil Garner to Los Angeles, the Astros brought up Ken Caminiti to replace him. The switch-hitting rookie belted a triple in his first game and showed exceptional range on defense. He shared time with Denny Walling at third.
Gerald Young, a pencil-thin outfielder with exceptional speed, was the other new face. He dazzled with a .321 average and 26 steals during a two-month call at the end of the season. Along with Caminiti, Lanier could now put five switch-hitters in the batting order.
For a team that had everything break their way one year, the odds caught up the next. As a veteran-laden team, the window of opportunity for a title was quickly running out.
The shortstop position had become muddled. Dickie Thon battled vision problems that began with the beaning in 1984. He left the club in the middle of the 1987 and was released. Craig Reynolds had turned 35 and was no longer seen as an everyday shortstop but still had veteran skills as a utilityman. The Astros auditioned four replacements during the 1987 season - Chuck Jackson, Bert Pena, Dale Berra and the infamous Buddy Biancalana, a butt of comedian David Letterman's jokes.
The Astros solved the shortstop mess by acquiring Rafael Ramirez from Atlanta. Ramirez anchored the middle in Houston with a .276 average and 59 RBIs as well as some surprising defense.
Popular Jose Cruz was released. Told by the Astros he should retire, the 40-year-old joined the Yankees. Some Houston fans were bitter, a foreshadowing of other personnel mishandlings.
Billy Hatcher moved into left field, giving Gerald Young the job in center. Young set a club record with 65 stolen bases but batted just .257 and was becoming a liability in the leadoff spot. A classic case of someone who failed to adjust, Young did not learn to bunt well or slap hits in order to use his blazing speed. He developed an uppercut swing that produced flies and pop outs. After such a promising start, Young's career floundered.
Glenn Davis started out hot with the bat and finished with 30 homers and 99 RBIs. His most memorable blast of the year came on July 19th when Montreal's Pascual Perez sent a 40-mph bloop pitch to Davis which he powered into the left field seats. Davis explained he had played a lot of slow-pitch softball as a youth. Davis also belted the final home run to be saluted by the giant Astrodome scoreboard.
Kevin Bass provided some key hits like the grand slam he swatted to beat the Reds in April but his average slipped to .255. Bass swiped 31 bases. The outfield combo of Young, Hatcher, Bass and Terry Puhl amassed 150 steals between them. A forgotten man during the past three seasons, Puhl stepped in to bat .303 in 113 games.
Sensing the offense needed a boost, Houston traded with Cincinnati for veteran third baseman Buddy Bell on June 18th, the same day the hitters broke out with a nine-run rally to drop Atlanta, 14-7. Bell would ring up his eighth career grand slam on July 15th in a 7-5 victory over the Phillies.
The Astros debuted another fresh face when 22-year-old Craig Biggio was called up on June 26th. He replaced injured catcher Alan Ashby and saw action in 50 games. He got twice as many steals (six) as home runs (three), opening some eyes with his speed.
Pitchers shared the spotlight as Bob Knepper and Nolan Ryan rebounded from horrible seasons. Ryan flirted with a record sixth no-hitter against Philadelphia on April 27th, five years to the day after he broke Walter Johnson's strikeout record. He got help from an outfield assist at second base and an error before Mike Schmidt stroked a clean single with one out in the ninth. Houston recovered to win, 3-2, in ten innings. On July 9th, Nolan beat the Mets for his 100th win as an Astro, becoming the second player in big league history to win 100 games for teams in both leagues. The 41-year-old Ryan posted a 12-11 record while leading the league in strikeouts for the ninth time in his career.
The hot-and-cold Knepper was scalding to start the season. On May 20th, he ran his record to 6-0 with a 0.89 ERA. A female reporter for Sports Illustrated got an interview with Knepper in which he was quoted as saying the radical National Organization for Women were "a bunch of lesbians and blowhards". The quote sparked protests at Astros games. Knepper apologized a month later. He finished the year with a 14-5 record.
Mike Scott was still dominating hitters with his split-finger fastball. He, too, approached a milestone when he faced the Braves on June 12th. One out shy of a no-hitter, Ken Oberkfell laced a single to right field. Scott finished with a one-hit, 5-0 shutout. He would post a 14-8 mark for the season.
Dave Smith had another solid year in the bullpen with 27 saves while lefthander Juan Agosto won ten consecutive decisions in relief. The final one came on August 22nd during the first night game the Astros played at Chicago's Wrigley Field. Ramirez delivered two runs to tie the Cubs in the ninth then Biggio won it with his first big league homer, a shot off Goose Gossage in the tenth.
The Astros had mixed results. The club stayed in contention for a good part of the season and improved their record to 82-80 but a late-season slide landed them in fifth place. Houston had used 21 players aged 30 or older during the season and soon had to decide if they had one more title run in their veteran squad.
The front office played it coy with Nolan Ryan, hinting he would have to take a pay cut to stay near his hometown. It was the wrong move. Ryan shocked everyone by signing with the Texas Rangers instead. The amazing flamethrower would play five more years in the American League, notching his 300th win and 5,000th strikeout as well as recording a miraculous sixth and seventh career no-hitters while in his forties. Ryan moved from being legendary to a baseball deity while in Arlington. Houston fans burned in anger with every milestone, believing that McMullen's stinginess had cost them the glory of seeing all these accomplishments achieved in Astro stripes.
Hal Lanier got the boot as manager, replaced by Art Howe. The man who nearly gave up on baseball before finding success as a player in Houston was now running the show. Some of the veterans like Craig Reynolds, Dave Smith and Terry Puhl could recall playing alongside Howe earlier in the decade. After the demanding Lanier, the calmer Howe was thought to help soothe some nerves in the Houston clubhouse.
signed free agent Jim Clancy to fill Ryan's spot in the rotation. A workhorse
in Toronto, Clancy flopped in his new role, going 7-14 with a 5.08 ERA.
A more pleasant surprise was Mark Portugal, dealt by Minnesota, who posted
a 7-1 record. Veterans Rick Rhoden, Bob Forsch and Dan Schatzeder were
acquired, making the staff older even without Ryan. One thing all three
pitchers could do was hit, making the Astros a dangerous club at the bottom
of the batting order.
Scott: 20-game winner.
Mike Scott became the fourth pitcher in club history to reach 20 wins. Although he led the league in wins, Scott was denied a second Cy Young Award when San Diego reliever Mark Davis took the honor. Scott was also denied again when he sought to throw a second no-hitter on May 19th against Pittsburgh. He settled for a one-hit, 3-0 victory.
Ironically, it was Glenn Wilson, a resident of nearby Conroe, who broke up the gem. The Astros had tried to trade for Wilson earlier in the month in exchange for Alan Ashby but the catcher refused the deal (a right of players with ten years of big league service and five with their present ballclub). Not long afterwards, the Astros released Ashby in front of teammates as they boarded a bus to begin a road trip. The heavy-handed dismissal of another crowd favorite embittered fans even more who had not forgotten the way Jose Cruz and Nolan Ryan left town. Houston later obtained Wilson for outfielder Billy Hatcher.
The Astros hung in contention then reeled off ten straight wins, the last two in dramatic fashion. The Dodgers and Astros staged a 22-inning marathon that didn't end until after the bars were closed. It was Clancy's finest effort, trading goose eggs with Orel Hershiser as both pitched relief well into the morning. With Los Angeles down to a third baseman pitching, a first baseman at third and pitcher Fernando Valenzuela stationed at first, Rafael Ramirez singled home the game-winner. The 5-4 duel lasted seven hours and fourteen minutes.
Howe asked for volunteers to play the next afternoon and, as fate had it, Houston took it into extra innings again on a two-out, ninth-inning shot by Craig Biggio. More heroes emerged in unfamiliar roles as Reynolds made an amazing throw from left to save a run and reliever Scott drove home Ramirez in the 13th for the 7-6 triumph with a sacrifice fly.
Biggio would deliver a big blow again on June 27th when his three-run blast shocked San Francisco, 7-5. The Astros moved within two games of the front-running Giants. Biggio belted 13 home runs during the season and stole 21 bases. He became the first catcher since Ron Brand to bat leadoff in a Houston lineup.
Houston and San Francisco fought for the division lead for much of the summer but the older Astros were beginning to fade. On August 3rd in Cincinnati, Clancy and Forsch endured a record-setting meltdown as the Reds scored 14 runs in the first inning on 16 hits en route to an 18-2 massacre. Forsch allowed a club-record 18 hits. It was a getaway day before a series in San Francisco, but the drubbing did nothing for the team's confidence.
On August 29th, the Astros squandered a team-record seven-RBI performance by Ramirez when the Cubs came back from nine runs down to take a 10-9 decision. The Astros fell five games off the lead.
They never recovered, finishing six games behind the Giants in third place with an 86-76 mark. It was the last pennant race the Astros would see for several years.
Team batting sunk to .239. After the 34 homers by Glenn Davis, only Biggio and Ken Caminiti reached double figures. Four Astros swiped 20 or more bases, led by 34 from Gerald Young. Rookies Eric Yelding and Eric Anthony made impressive debuts. Jim Deshaies notched 15 victories while Danny Darwin won eleven and saved seven. Smith racked up 25 saves. Art Howe showed he could win with a veteran team but a rebuilding season lie just around the corner.
Injuries and age dragged down the Astros, finishing with a 75-87 record in fourth place. It was an eleven-game drop from the previous year. They were clearly becoming a team in transition. Glenn Davis missed time with a rib injury while Mike Scott fell to 9-13. The regular who had the best average on the team, Bill Doran, was traded to Cincinnati where he celebrated a World's Championship.
It was a time for experimentation. Craig Biggio was moved to the outfield after management decided not to waste his speed behind the plate. Newcomer Franklin Stubbs was tried in left field but he moved to his natural first base position after Davis was hurt. Eric Yelding and Casey Candaele were tried all over the infield and outfield. Ken Oberkfell and Dave Rohde both saw time at three infield positions.
Yelding flourished with a .254 average and 64 steals. Stubbs was a pleasant surprise, banging 23 homers and driving in 71 runs, leading the club in both categories. Biggio and Ken Caminiti continued to grow into regular parts of the lineup.
Eric Anthony, a much-heralded slugger in the minors, hit just .192 in 84 games but he left an impression when he became the first and only Astro to reach the upper reserved seats in right field on May 17th. A star was painted on the seat where it landed. Four days later, he beat the Pirates on another long blast in the 11th inning. He would swat ten for the year.
Davis broke out of a long slump on May 26th with three homers and nine RBIs during a doubleheader sweep in Chicago. He would swat three more in San Francisco on June 1st but the Astros still lost.
On July 25th, Stubbs would become the 15th first baseman in the modern era to play an entire game without a putout. He also drove in six during a 10-1 rout of the Dodgers on September 26th. Five days earlier, rookie Mike Simms had a twin treat in Atlanta, capping off a triple play then smashing his first big league homer to win the game. Danny Darwin led the ballclub with just eleven wins in a dual role as starter and reliever but he tossed enough innings to get the league ERA crown with a 2.21 effort.
There were two late trades that would turn out to be the most important news of the year. At the trading deadline, the Astros sent reliever Larry Andersen to the Boston Red Sox for a minor league third baseman. The young player was stuck behind Wade Boggs at his position and, while he hated to leave the organization he cheered on as a boy, he welcomed the chance to finally play in the majors. The Astros were mighty happy they gave Jeff Bagwell that opportunity.
After the season, Houston traded slugger Glenn Davis to the Baltimore Orioles for a trio of young talents. The Astros were soundly criticized for "dumping" their star player but, in retrospect, the deal for pitchers Curt Schilling and Pete Harnisch along with outfielder Steve Finley might have become equated with the Brinks Robbery had the three stayed longer in Houston. Davis would never again regain his health and played sparingly in Baltimore. The three acquisitions would eventually be stars, though not in Houston. It's a good thing Bagwell found immediate success or someone might have dealt him away too.
The veterans were purged, partly for youth and partly to dump high salaries while McMullen tried to sell the team. Mike Scott appeared in just two games then retired with an injured shoulder. Jim Clancy was traded in June, suddenly leaving 31-year-old Jim Deshaies as the old man on the pitching staff. The bench was similarly thinned of veterans.
What was left was a youth movement not seen in Houston since the Colt .45s. They turned in a Colt-like 65-97 record to finish at the bottom of the Western Division. It was never a question where they would finish.
New blood and fresh faces were seen all over the roster. When Jeff Bagwell came to camp, he found himself still unwelcome at third base. Ken Caminiti held down that job so the rookie would have to adjust to playing at first base.
Bagwell showed he belonged, leading the club with 15 homers and 82 RBIs. Not known as a power hitter in the minors, Jeff surprised the Braves with his first major league homer. As for average, the .294 clip was just a point behind Craig Biggio for the club leadership. With his peculiar batting stance, Jeff also led the league in getting hit by pitches. Bagwell became the first Astro to be named National League Rookie of the Year.
Steve Finley also responded well to his first season as an Astro. He batted .285, led the team in hits (170) and steals (34). In addition, he made acrobatic catches in center field.
Ken Caminiti had a breakout season with 13 homers and 80 RBIs. Biggio swiped 19 bases and batted .295. He got his first taste of playing second base late in the season, a tryout that would be important for his career. Outfielder Luis Gonzalez had an impressive rookie season , slugging 13 home runs and driving in 69. Andujar Cedeno, Karl Rhodes, Tony Eusebio, Scott Servais and a lightning-quick outfielder named Kenny Lofton all had call-ups from the minors. Lofton would be dealt to Cleveland in the off-season for catcher Eddie Taubensee, a trade Houston fans would come to regret.
The pitching staff also became a year-long tryout. Pete Harnisch led the club with a dozen victories and fashioned a 2.70 ERA. Curt Schilling, the third guy in the Davis trade, was tried as a closer, saving eight games. Lefty Al Osuna let the squad with twelve saves. Others to make their Houston mound debuts were Darryl Kile, Ryan Bowen, Jimmy Jones, Brian Williams, Rob Mallicoat and Jeff Juden. Even Art Howe must have needed a scorecard to keep track of all the new faces.
The kids showed their potential when they ran off a seven-game winning streak, capped on August 4th with a 2-1 triumph over the first-place Dodgers to sweep the series. To add to the insult, the Astros pulled off their second triple play of the season.
Critics accused McMullen of being cheap. Optimists found reason to hope the new players would gel into the foundation for future championships. Both were right. In truth, the Astros cleaned house and slashed payroll and did so with just a ten-game drop off from the crew of grizzled veterans who came in fifth the year before. Some of the new kids stayed throughout the decade. Others had good careers elsewhere. Some would never make much of a career anywhere. The trick was knowing who was which. The Astros didn't make all the right calls and the proof was how the team struggled to return to the postseason for the next five years.