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It took just two years for Drayton McLane to feel the financial pinch. The lengthy strike had left him with a team payroll he felt was too high. The solution was a 12-player deal with the San Diego Padres, sending away Ken Caminiti, Steve Finley, Andujar Cedeno and three others. The key players in return were outfielders Derek Bell and Phil Plantier. Infielders Craig Shipley and Ricky Gutierrez were thrown in as well as pitcher Doug Brocail. This mid-winter deal happened even though the strike was far from settled. The trade was arranged with the help of Tal Smith, back with the organization after a 14-year absence. Tal's son, Randy, was running the Padres before moving on to Detroit. Gerry Hunsicker was officially General Manager after Bob Watson left to work for the New York Yankees. Although Bell was hyped as someone who could provide lineup help for Jeff Bagwell, the deal was a thinly-disguised salary dump.

The prospect of replacement players finally brought the strikers back just as the season was about to begin. A three-week delay to allow for conditioning shrunk the campaign to 144 games. Getting a ticket to the ol' ballgame was never easier. Attendance nosedived throughout the majors.

At least in Houston, the hitters got into shape faster than the pitchers. The Astros had the best batting average of any team in the league that wasn't based in Colorado. The pitchers were fifth in team ERA, despite a sickly 4.06 average. Doug Drabek, Greg Swindell and Shane Reynolds shared the team lead with ten wins apiece while Todd Jones took over the closer role with fifteen saves.

Eight Astros hit .290 or higher. Five stole 20 or more bases. Craig Biggio led the team in homers (21), steals (33) and doubles (30) while batting .302. He also swatted a home run in the All-Star Game. Bell led the club with a .334 average while Bagwell paced the Astros with 87 RBIs. Once again, Bagwell's left hand was broken, this time by a pitch from ex-teammate Brian Williams who was dealt to San Diego in the mega-trade. Bagwell's injury sent the Astros into a tailspin.

Ailments plagued the squad all season and forced some other trades. Luis Gonzalez and Scott Servais were dealt to Chicago for an ineffective Rick Wilkins. Plantier broke his hand and was traded back to San Diego. Disgruntled top draft choice Phil Nevin was shipped to Detroit for veteran reliever Mike Henneman.

As they had the year before, the Astros fought the Reds for first place in the Central Division. They also contended with Chicago. Houston spanked the Cubs, 19-6, on June 25th to set a team record for runs in one game. The Astros were in a strong position to either win the division or become the "wild card" playoff team. Then, after Bagwell's injury, the club went on a club-record eleven-game losing streak. Catcher Tony Eusebio broke the skid on August 29th with a homer in the 13th inning to upend Atlanta, 11-9.

The season wound down to the final weekend in Chicago. The Astros, Cubs and Rockies were still in the hunt for the "wild card" spot. On September 28th, the Astros blew five leads in a 12-11 loss. Chicago pitcher Randy Myers was attacked on the mound by a "fan" but it was Houston fans who should have been upset. The Astros and Cubs knocked each other out of the playoffs while the folks in Colorado celebrated.

Houston ended with a 76-49 record but nothing to show for it. The late-season collapse had players griping about Terry Collins' aggressive style. In two years under Collins, the Astros had yet to play a full 162-game season but they already felt the whip was being cracked too often.

By Astro Daily
 

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