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 on April 7th in just the second game of the season. It was the earliest no-hitter by calendar date in big league history until topped by Hideo Nomo in 2001.
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. Leonard would respond by hitting .290 and stealing 23 bases to be named "NL Rookie of the Year" by The Sporting News.
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, and 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, giving him consecutive seasons with 300 or more strikeouts. 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.By Astro Daily
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- Alan Ashby, Bill Virdon, Bob Watson, Cesar Cedeno, Craig Reynolds, Dusty Baker, Floyd Bannister, George Steinbrenner, Hideo Nomo, Houston Astros, J.R. Richard, Jeffrey Leonard, Joaquin Andujar, Joe Niekro, Joe Sambito, John McMullen, Jose Cruz, Ken Forsch, Mark Lemongello, Ray Knight, Terry Puhl, The Sporting News Rookie of the Year Award, Tom Seaver