Mike Scott had come off a 5-11 campaign and looked for all the world as if he was destined to be no better than a journeyman. A hard thrower, the 30-year-old Scott seemed unable to set up his fastball. He was sent to Roger Craig, a former Houston pitching coach who touted the wonders of a new pitch called the "split-finger" fastball. Bruce Sutter had used it with devastating success to become the dominant closer in the league. A large hand was needed to make it work. The index and middle fingers were spread further apart than the traditional baseball grip. The effect was a pitch that looked like a normal fastball until it moved sharply downward at the last instant. Just as the knuckleball restarted Joe Niekro's career, Scott had found his second pitch.
The Astrodome celebrated 20 years of action on April 9th. Nolan Ryan was the Opening Day starter against the Dodgers. He pitched seven innings for a 2-1 triumph and survived the distractions of a surprise visitor to get the win.
Pitching milestones were a storyline of the 1985 campaign. Scott got his first win with the new pitch on April 22nd, allowing five hits in a 4-1 verdict over Cincinnati. He would notch 18 victories to lead the team. Ryan pitched his 200th complete game with a 6-2 victory over the Cubs on May 16th. Nolan recorded his record 4,000th strikeout on July 11th in the Dome against the Mets. Ex-teammate Danny Heep was the victim.
Niekro struggled to achieve his goal. He failed in six attempts to break Larry Dierker's franchise record for career victories. At one point he offered bribes to the hitters if they'd just give him some extra run support. When the time finally came, Joe broke the record in style, spinning a two-hit shutout to beat the Giants on June 9th. It was his 138th win as an Astro. In mid-September, Niekro was traded to the Yankees for two minor league pitchers, including lefthander Jim Deshaies. Joe could once again pitch alongside his brother Phil, signed by the Yankees after the Braves had cast him aside.
Not to be outdone in the milestone department was Jose Cruz who racked up his 2,000th hit on September 15th against San Diego. Cruz turned in another .300 average performance and the offense showed signs of explosiveness. They won by some un-Astro-like scores of 10-7 over Cincinnati, 10-0 over Montreal, 11-0 over San Diego, 10-0 over Philadelphia, 12-4 over the Mets, 12-9 over the Padres, 11-4 over Chicago and 17-2 over St. Louis.
The hitters took off after Glenn Davis was called up from the minors in June. He powered 20 home runs with 64 RBIs. Some of the new guys followed his lead. Kevin Bass belted 16 long balls, Bill Doran swatted 14 round-trippers and Mark Bailey added ten. The club banged out 121 home runs, their most since 1973.
On the last day of the season, the Astros had dollar signs in their eyes. A win over San Diego would tie them for third place and give each player a $700 payout. Alan Ashby's homer in the seventh inning made the difference. 6'-6", 270-lb. rookie Charlie Kerfeld pitched six innings in relief for the victory while Dave Smith claimed his 27th save. The Astros completed an 83-79 campaign and, while few noticed, the pieces were beginning to form for one of the most exciting seasons in team history.By Astro Daily
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- Alan Ashby, Astrodome, Bill Doran, Bruce Sutter, Charlie Kerfeld, Danny Heep, Dave Smith, Glenn Davis, Houston Astros, Jim Deshaies, Joe Niekro, Jose Cruz, Kevin Bass, Larry Dierker, Mark Bailey, Mike Scott, Nolan Ryan, Roger Craig, Splitter, split finger fast ball