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 saw his average slip to .255 but still provided some key hits like the grand slam he swatted to beat the Reds in April. 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.By Astro Daily
- Alan Ashby, Astrodome, Bert Pena, Billy Hatcher, Bob Knepper, Buddy Bell, Buddy Biancalana, Chuck Jackson, Craig Biggio, Craig Reynolds, Dale Berra, Dave Smith, Dickie Thon, Gerald Young, Glenn Davis, Houston Astros, Jose Cruz, Ken Oberkfell, Kevin Bass, Mike Schmidt, Mike Scott, Nolan Ryan, Pascual Perez, Rafael Ramirez, Rich Gossage, Terry Puhl, Walter Johnson