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. When an injury required a callup, Puhl was chosen over touted prospect Joe Cannon so that Cannon could continue to play every day. Puhl 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. Puhl never stopped hitting and soon won an everyday job in the outfield.
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.By Astro Daily
- Art Howe, Bob Watson, Cesar Cedeno, Enos Cabell, Floyd Bannister, Houston Astros, J.R. Richard, Joaquin Andujar, Joe Cannon, Joe Ferguson, Joe Niekro, Johnny Edwards, Jose Cruz, Larry Dierker, Mark Lemongello, Terry Puhl