Hal Lanier got the boot as manager, replaced by Art Howe. The man who nearly gave up on baseball before finding success as a player in Houston was now running the show. Some of the veterans like Craig Reynolds, Dave Smith and Terry Puhl could recall playing alongside Howe earlier in the decade. After the demanding Lanier, the calmer Howe was thought to help soothe some nerves in the Houston clubhouse.
The Astros signed free agent Jim Clancy to fill Nolan Ryan's spot in the rotation. A workhorse in Toronto, Clancy flopped in his new role, going 7-14 with a 5.08 ERA. A more pleasant surprise was Mark Portugal, dealt by Minnesota, who posted a 7-1 record. Veterans Rick Rhoden, Bob Forsch and Dan Schatzeder were acquired, making the staff older even without Ryan. One thing all three pitchers could do was hit, making the Astros a dangerous club at the bottom of the batting order.
Mike Scott became the fourth pitcher in club history to reach 20 wins. Although he led the league in wins, Scott was denied a second Cy Young Award when San Diego reliever Mark Davis took the honor. Scott was also denied again when he sought to throw a second no-hitter on May 19th against Pittsburgh. He settled for a one-hit, 3-0 victory. Scott later registered his 100th win as an Astro on September 9th.
Ironically, it was Glenn Wilson, a resident of nearby Conroe, who broke up Scott's no-hit bid. The Astros had tried to trade for Wilson earlier in the month in exchange for Alan Ashby but the catcher refused the deal (a right of players with ten years of big league service and five with their present ballclub). Not long afterwards, the Astros released Ashby in front of teammates as they boarded a bus to begin a road trip. The heavy-handed dismissal of another crowd favorite embittered fans even more who had not forgotten the way Jose Cruz and Nolan Ryan left town. Houston later obtained Wilson for outfielder Billy Hatcher.
The Astros hung in contention then reeled off ten straight wins, the last two in dramatic fashion. The Dodgers and Astros staged a 22-inning marathon that didn't end until after the bars were closed. It was Clancy's finest effort, trading goose eggs with Orel Hershiser as both pitched relief well into the morning. With Los Angeles down to a third baseman pitching, a first baseman at third and pitcher Fernando Valenzuela stationed at first, Rafael Ramirez singled home the game-winner. The 5-4 duel lasted seven hours and fourteen minutes.
Howe asked for volunteers to play the next afternoon and, as fate had it, Houston took it into extra innings again on a two-out, ninth-inning shot by Craig Biggio. More heroes emerged in unfamiliar roles as Reynolds made an amazing throw from left to save a run and reliever Scott drove home Ramirez in the 13th for the 7-6 triumph with a sacrifice fly.
Biggio would deliver a big blow again on June 27th when his three-run blast shocked San Francisco, 7-5. The Astros moved within two games of the front-running Giants. Biggio belted 13 home runs during the season and stole 21 bases. He became the first catcher since Ron Brand to bat leadoff in a Houston lineup.
Houston and San Francisco fought for the division lead for much of the summer but the older Astros were beginning to fade. On August 3rd in Cincinnati, Clancy and Forsch endured a record-setting meltdown as the Reds scored 14 runs in the first inning on 16 hits en route to an 18-2 massacre. Forsch allowed a club-record 18 hits. It was a getaway day before a series in San Francisco, but the drubbing did nothing for the team's confidence.
On August 29th, the Astros squandered a team-record seven-RBI performance by Ramirez when the Cubs came back from nine runs down to take a 10-9 decision. Houston fell five games off the lead.
They never recovered, finishing six games behind the Giants in third place with an 86-76 mark. It was the last pennant race the Astros would see for several years.
Team batting sunk to .239. After the 34 homers by Glenn Davis, only Biggio and Ken Caminiti reached double figures. Four Astros swiped 20 or more bases, led by 34 from Gerald Young. Rookies Eric Yelding and Eric Anthony made impressive debuts. Jim Deshaies notched 15 victories while Danny Darwin won eleven and saved seven. Smith racked up 25 saves. Art Howe showed he could win with a veteran team but a rebuilding season lie just around the corner.By Astro Daily
- Alan Ashby, Art Howe, Billy Hatcher, Bob Forsch, Craig Biggio, Craig Reynolds, Craig Wilson, Dan Schatzeder, Dave Smith, Fernando Valenzuela, Glenn Wilson, Hal Lanier, Houston Astros, Jim Clancy, Jose Cruz, Mark Davis, Mark Portugal, Mike Scott, Nolan Ryan, Orel Hershiser, Rafael Ramirez, Rick Rhoden, Ron Brand, Terry Puhl