The National League expanded in 1993 for the first time in 24 years, placing teams in Denver, Colorado and Miami, Florida. The league realigned the next year to form three divisions and add a new round of playoffs to the postseason - one that proved a thorn in Houston's side later in the decade. From 1994, the Astros would reside in the National League Central Division with new rivals like St. Louis, Chicago and Pittsburgh replacing the West Coast ballclubs in the minds of Houston fans.

Drayton McLane wanted to make a statement about his commitment to building a winning team. Knowing that pitching was the club's greatest weakness, he reached into the free agent market and lured two well-known starting pitchers to sign with Houston. Doug Drabek was a former Cy Young Award winner and the ace of the Pittsburgh staff. He had pitched before at the University of Houston. Lefty Greg Swindell was a star at the University of Texas before earning honors in Cleveland and Cincinnati. It didn't work as planned. Drabek suffered through a 9-18 campaign while Swindell fared only slightly better at 12-13. It was the rest of the rotation that picked up the slack.

Mark Portugal had one of the best seasons ever by an Astro pitcher, winning 18 games and losing four. Pete Harnisch tossed a pair of one-hit gems during the campaign, including a shutout on September 17th where the only San Diego hit was a controversial bunt play. He won 16 games, four by shutout.

Darryl Kile racked up 15 wins, none more dramatic than on September 8th when he tossed a no-hitter for a 7-1 triumph over the Mets. It was the ninth no-hit performance in franchise history. Earlier in the year, Kile blanked St. Louis, 6-0, while belting a home run and a double.

It added up to an 85-77 record and a third place finish in the Western Division. The addition of two expansion teams, the Colorado Rockies and the Florida Marlins, seemed to water down the pitching around the league as offenses had a banner year.

Seven Astros reached double figures in home runs, led by Craig Biggio with 21 and Jeff Bagwell with 20. Bagwell also led the team with a .320 average and 88 RBIs. Luis Gonzalez turned in a .300 season while banging 15 long balls and leading the club with 20 steals.

The biggest improvement came from shortstop Andujar Cedeno. He raised his average 110 points to .283 and belted eleven home runs. Kevin Bass returned to hit .284 in a reserve role.

Art Howe proved he could rebuild a team almost entirely in five years and have them play as well as when he first arrived. But, surprisingly, this was not enough. After the season he was fired and replaced with Terry Collins, a coach from the Pittsburgh organization. McLane also fired General Manager Bill Wood, who had held the job since 1987, and promoted former player Bob Watson. It was a special moment for Watson who became the first African-American to hold such a position in major league history. That it was also someone who starred for the ballclub implied the Astros would try to stick to their roots. With labor unrest on the horizon, Watson's task would not be an easy one.

By Astro Daily

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