It seemed the Astros had spun their wheels for the past five seasons. To push them further, a new manager and general manager were brought aboard. Dick Wagner helped to craft the "Big Red Machine" in Cincinnati that dominated the National League in the 1970s. Hal Lanier had never managed at the big league level but he had studied under successful leadership in San Francisco and St. Louis. Lanier promised to make the team "more aggressive" but then no manager has yet promised to make a team less aggressive. Despite the club's slow improvement, both the local and national media had low expectations for the Astros going into the new season. They'd become somewhat predictable.
The addition of outfielder Billy Hatcher was the only major change. It was hoped he could add more speed at the top of the order. As a rookie, he had played 53 games with the Cubs and batted .245. In Houston, he'd have a chance to start regularly.
Lanier made another calculated gamble. With three veteran starting pitchers, Lanier decided to begin the season with a three-man rotation, even as others in the league were turning to five-man rotations to save wear on their pitching staffs. Because of several days off the first two months, Lanier felt he could keep Mike Scott, Nolan Ryan and Bob Knepper sharp yet rested while slowly working rookie Jim Deshaies into the rotation. It was a master stroke. Houston won seven of eight on the season's first road trip and bolted into first place. Knepper was hot, winning nine by the end of May while closer Dave Smith racked up eleven saves. Charley Kerfeld helped in the bullpen with five victories.
Even with the fast start, the Astros had doubters. Los Angeles manager Tommy Lasorda sniffed that Houston was just "renting" first place. Bullpen depth was a problem in the beginning but three acquisitions firmed up the staff. Righthanders Larry Andersen and Aurelio Lopez came to Houston in waiver deals. Both were veterans who brought World Series experience. In August, the Astros traded for Danny Darwin, a pitcher who excelled both as a starter and in relief.
The left side of the infield was turned into a platoon situation. Denny Walling and Craig Reynolds faced the righthanded pitchers while Phil Garner and Dickie Thon batted against lefthanders. Bill Doran and Glenn Davis held down the right side by themselves. Davis was building a season not seen in Houston since Jim Wynn wore navy and orange. By mid-season, Glenn had 18 homers and 53 RBIs.
Davis was named to the National League All-Star team. He was joined by Scott, Smith and outfielder Kevin Bass who was hitting over .300. The All-Star Game was held at the Astrodome, with the American League squeezing out a 3-2 decision.
The Astros had been first in the Western Division all season but had slipped into second place just before the All-Star break. The next opponent was the New York Mets, a team full of both talent and swagger that was running away with the Eastern Division. The Mets had won six of eight from Houston and easily beat them in the first of a four-game series on July 17th. Knepper came back and blanked them, 3-0, the next day. Scott looked to be sailing to victory on July 19th until the Mets rallied to tie. Craig Reynolds suddenly broke the deadlock with a dramatic home run off Roger McDowell. On Sunday the 20th, the Astros and Mets were locked in a heated battle that wouldn't be decided until the 15th inning when Doran made it home with the bases full as Houston pulled out a 9-8 victory. The Astros had served notice that they were not going to wilt under pressure. The Mets and Astros would not face each other during the final eleven weeks. Next, Houston swept a series against Montreal, winning each game in their final at bat.
Speed had helped to catapult the Astros. Doran swiped 42 bases to lead the club while Hatcher added 38 and Bass 22. Further, Lanier challenged arms across the league with daring baserunning plays that sometimes failed but often worked.
One last change sparked the club. After years of being held back by injuries and challenges to his job, Alan Ashby became a full-time catcher again. He provided a third switch-hitter to the lineup (along with Doran and Bass), giving the Astros great lineup flexibility. His veteran leadership behind the plate helped the pitchers settle into a groove. On August 11th, he came through with a bases-loaded double to upend the Dodgers, 7-6, in a nationally-televised game.
The ballclub pushed ahead of San Francisco and Cincinnati to lead the division. Unaccustomed as they were to baseball dominance, Houston fans were slow to warm up to the Astros, knowing full well how often they'd been disappointed in the past. When the team won seven of eight to begin September, the fans started to believe.
The Clincher . . .
With a dozen games left in the season, the pennant looked to be within Houston's grasp. Deshaies gave the Astros a lift on September 23rd when he struck out the first eight Dodgers he faced, setting a modern major league record. He blanked the Dodgers on two hits, 4-0. On the next night, Ryan kept the Giants hitless until Mike Aldrete's single in the seventh. Nolan struck out the side in the eighth and left with a dozen strikeouts. Kerfeld allowed a meaningless hit in the ninth but Houston won, 6-0, on another two-hitter to clinch a mathematical tie for the division crown. Davis blasted his 30th home run, becoming the first Astro to reach that mark since Wynn in 1969.
Mike Scott would take the mound against San Francisco for the Wednesday afternoon finale of the homestand. He wanted to celebrate a title at home, rather than on the road. Now mastering the split-finger fastball, Scott elevated his game from strong to spectacular.
Walling broke the scoreless tie in the fifth with a home run off Juan Berenguer. It would be all the cushion Scott would need for his 18th win of the season. As the ninth inning began, a personal milestone was stealing the attention from the team's triumph. The last obstacle was Will Clark, a dangerous rookie who had spoiled Astro hopes on Opening Day. Scott coaxed a ground out to earn a no-hitter while the Astros joyously celebrated the division crown. It marked the first time in major league history that a title had been clinched with a no-hitter. Astro pitching was so strong that they fired five shutouts in six games. Scott became the first Houston pitcher to win the National League Cy Young Award, with five shutouts, 306 strikeouts and a 2.22 ERA.
Other Astros gave stellar performances. Davis finished with 31 homers and 101 RBIs. Bass hit .311 and added 20 home runs. Walling batted .312 and provided 13 long balls. Jose Cruz, suddenly no longer the focus of the offense, still chipped in with ten homers and 72 RBIs. Knepper won 17 games, five on shutouts. Deshaies and Ryan each won twelve while Kerfeld contributed eleven wins in relief. Dave Smith set a club record with 33 saves. The Astros had their best record ever at 96-66. But, for all of that, the Astros would be underdogs again when they battled the New York Mets for the National League pennant.By Astro Daily
- Alan Ashby, Astrodome, Aurelio Lopez, Big Red Machine, Bill Doran, Billy Hatcher, Bob Knepper, Charlie Kerfeld, Craig Reynolds, Cy Young Award, Danny Darwin, Dave Smith, Denny Walling, Dickie Thon, Glenn Davis, Hal Lanier, Houston Astros, Jim Deshaies, Jim Wynn, Jose Cruz, Kevin Bass, Larry Andersen, Mike Aldrete, Mike Scott, Nolan Ryan, Phil Garner, Roger McDowell, Tommy Lasorda, Will Clark