When Astros broadcaster and former pitcher Larry Dierker was called into the General Manager's office after the 1996 season, he must have wondered what was up. He'd been a popular and successful "color" man and had provided some good insights to his listeners during games. Now he was offered the chance to put his words into practice. He was asked if he wanted to manage the Astros.
Larry decided that, if he failed, he could always go back to announcing, so he agreed to give it a try. While Houston fans were willing to give him a chance, the reaction of the national media was swift and derisive. Dierker had never managed or coached, even in the minors. The thought of a broadcaster becoming a manager was treated as a joke. Dierker, who was known to favor Hawaiian shirts, offered a laid-back contrast to the intense Terry Collins. The joke was on the rest of the National League Central Division.
It was called the "Comedy Central". The entire division had an underwhelming feel to it. The Pittsburgh and Cincinnati clubs were claiming poverty, the St. Louis squad was beset with injuries and the Chicago organization was plagued by their usual incompetence. The Astros, as frequently disappointing as they were, at least had the talent to rise above.
Dierker's managerial debut came, as fate ordained, on April Fools Day against the defending league champion Braves. Shane Reynolds and Billy Wagner deliver a 2-1 victory.
One obstacle Dierker faced was that he had only three certified starting pitchers to fill a five-man rotation. The Astros rolled the dice on two righthanders coming off arm surgery, Ramon Garcia and Chris Holt. They joined Reynolds, Mike Hampton and Darryl Kile in the rotation schedule.
Holt showed early promise. On April 20th, he held the Dodgers at bay while Craig Biggio swatted two homers in a 3-1 triumph. He would go 8-12 for the season despite a 3.52 ERA. As the fifth man, Garcia split time between starting and relief work, picking up nine wins with a 3.69 ERA.
Kile was the one who benefited most from the expertise of Dierker and his pitching coach, ex-Astro Vern Ruhle. A man whose curveball was considered one of the best in the game, Kile had been brutally inconsistent with Houston - a Knepper for the Nineties. With a new focus, not even Denver's new Coors Field bothered him. This was a park where double-digit scores were not uncommon. He blanked the Rockies, 7-0 on May 24th, allowing just four hits over seven innings.
Luis Gonzalez returned to Houston and found a vacancy in left field where he had patrolled for 4-1/2 seasons. A streak hitter, Gonzalez tied the club record for consecutive games with a hit on June 20 during a 7-3 win over the Cubs. He tied Art Howe's club mark of 23 straight games. He cooled down to a .258 average with ten homers for the year.
There were other holes to fill. Pat Listach started the season at shortstop but was soon replaced by Tim Bogar, Bill Spiers and Ricky Gutierrez. Spiers also split time at third with Sean Berry. Center field belonged, at times, to James Mouton, Derek Bell, Thomas Howard and Chuckie Carr. The sprightly Carr had the most speed but had burned bridges as easily as he burned basepaths, copping the attitude of Rickey Henderson without actually playing like Rickey Henderson. Bob Abreu's shot in the outfield was limited due to an injured wrist.
There was nothing wrong with the right side of the infield. Jeff Bagwell had another monster year at the plate, becoming the first Astro to reach 40 home runs on September 16th in a 15-3 bombing of San Diego. Bagwell would lead the club with 43 homers, 135 RBIs and 40 doubles. He became more aggressive on the bases, swiping 31 for the year.
Biggio paced the squad with a .309 average, 191 hits and 47 steals. Put in the leadoff spot of the batting order, Craig led the league with 146 runs scored. He also found time to launch 22 round-trippers and drive in 81, both totals second only to Bagwell.
This was the first year where teams from the American and National leagues played games against each other that mattered in the standings. The Central Division clubs from the National squared off against their American League counterparts. Houston's first game of this type came on June 13th against the Minnesota Twins. The Astros lost, 8-1, and didn't fare well against these new rivals. Fan reaction to interleague play outside of Houston was positive so the gimmick continued into following seasons.
All year long, the Astros hovered around the .500 mark. It was good enough for first place in the weak division, but Houston had to fend off a plucky challenge from the bargain basement Pirates of Gene Lamont. This was felt most keenly on July 12th when Francisco Cordova and Ricardo Rincon combined for a ten-inning, 3-0 no-hitter. It was the first time in 28 years that the Astros had tasted a no-hit defeat.
Kile led the pitching staff, racking up a 17-3 mark by the end of August. He cooled off to finish with a 19-7 record and a 2.57 ERA with four shutouts and 205 strikeouts. Hampton had a strong second half, completing a 15-10 season. Closer Billy Wagner won seven and saved 23 while fanning 106 batters in just 66 innings.
Down the home stretch, the Astros tried to win the division and keep their necks above water at the same time. After Derek Bell drove in four runs to pace a 10-3 win over the Dodgers on September 12th, Houston stood 3-1/2 games ahead of Pittsburgh but just two games ahead of .500.
On September 25th, eleven years to the day that Mike Scott last won a division title for Houston, Hampton pitched a four-hitter to give the Astros their first Central Division title. It came at home before joyous fans after a 9-1 pasting of Chicago. Brad Ausmus delivered a three-run bomb to blow open a close game. In one of life's freakier moments, the hit NBC medical drama "ER" chose that night to air their program live. To prove to viewers it was live, the Cubs telecast was carried in the background of various scenes. The TV directors happened to cut to a picture of the game when Ausmus hit the homer. When told of the feat, Brad was excited. "ER", he said, was his favorite series and he was taping the program to watch later, not knowing he would be on the show.
At long last, the Astros were champions again, albeit with an 84-78 record, but nobody seriously gave them a chance in the National League Division Series against the powerful Atlanta Braves. The Braves had a fearsome trio of starters in Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz, and the Astros' lineup relied heavily on the success of Biggio and Bagwell.By Astro Daily
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