After ending the 2000 season with a dismal 72-90 record, a reasonable fan might think a shakeup was in order to get the team back on track for the 2001 season. However, little was done in the offseason. The team was frugal with free-agent signings, acquiring cheap veterans like Charlie Hayes and Jose Vizcaino, along with rehab projects Mike Jackson and Kent Bottenfield. Only one significant trade was made: dealing outfielder Roger Cedeno and hot-tempered Mitch Meluskey to Detroit in exchange for Brad Ausmus, Doug Brocail and Nelson Cruz. So after a two-year hiatus from Houston, Ausmus was returning to replace the young catcher whom the team had earlier expected to take his job.
The season started as 2000 ended with the team playing .500 ball for the first two months of the season. Craig Biggio immediately dispelled concerns about his return from the Disabled List, picking up five hits on the first day of the season, the first five-hit game of his career. Biggio showed no ill effects from surgery, playing 155 games and rapping 180 hits, including the 2000th of his career on May 4th.
Wade Miller was phenomenal in April, cashing in a 4-1 record and two high-strikeout performances against the Brewers for an "NL Pitcher of the Month" award. Miller would struggle afterwards, posting a 4.60 ERA over the next three months before regaining his form in August.
In contrast, the other starters struggled mightily from Day One. Shane Reynolds began the season on the Disabled List and did not start pitching effectively until June. Kent Bottenfield, Jose Lima, and Scott Elarton pitched poorly all season. By the end of July, none of the three pitchers were still in the rotation, forcing GM Gerry Hunsicker to break with tradition by tapping into the team's talented minor league rotations.
Roy Oswalt was promoted in May and was simply amazing the entire season. Until he was sidelined in September with a pulled hamstring, his 14-3 record and 2.73 ERA made him a serious contender for Rookie of the Year. Tim Redding made a good impression after his callup, striking out a batter per inning, but was inconsistent and was sent down for more seasoning. Carlos Hernandez was another winner, compiling a 1.02 ERA in three starts before injuring his shoulder on a head-first slide.
Hunsicker had some luck with his mid-season pickups as well. Dave Mlicki, acquired from Detroit in a one-for-one deal for Lima, pitched effectively at times and finished with a 7-3 record for the team. Pedro Astacio was acquired at the trading deadline for Scott Elarton and threw four quality starts in four starts before going on the Disabled List for the first time in his career. One small consolation was that the four quality starts by Astacio exceeded what Elarton had accomplished in his twenty starts for the team.
It was a mid-season pickup for the offense, however, that generated the most excitement. When Chris Truby began to struggle as the everyday third baseman, Hunsicker beat out the Cubs and signed free agent Vinny Castilla, who had just been released by Tampa Bay. Castilla turned his career around in Houston, hitting 23 homers and driving in 82 runs in just 122 games with the team. His best day came on July 28th, when Castilla hit three homers against the Pirates and saw a potential fourth homer robbed by a leaping catch from center fielder Brian Giles. Giles would go on to spoil the game for the entire team that day, hitting a game-winning grand slam in the bottom of the ninth, capping an incredible seven-run, 9th inning comeback against Houston.
By the All-Star break, the team's powerful offense and retooled starting rotation made it clear that the team was a contender once again. Lance Berkman, Moises Alou and Billy Wagner were named to the All-Star team, and deservedly so. Alou and Wagner had typically great seasons, with Alou batting .331 and Wagner tying the club record with 39 saves. It was the play of Berkman, however, that turned the most heads. Batting .331 with 34 homers, the young switch-hitter from Rice University established himself as a bona fide major league slugger. In addition, Berkman was versatile in the field, starting 40 games in center field.
Houston finally caught up with the faltering Cubs in mid-August, setting the stage for another great race for the NL Central Championship. On September 11th, though, the terrorist attacks in New York City placed our National Pasttime in perspective. All baseball games were delayed for a week as fans and players struggled to cope with the most vicious attack on American soil in U.S. history. The game returned soon and helped the nation return to normalcy.
When the Giants arrived in Houston on October 2nd, the Astros were mired in a losing slump and the red-hot Cardinals had moved to within one game. Barry Bonds was on a historic chase to set a new single-season home run record, just three seasons after Mark McGwire's historic chase. After getting unceremoniously swept by the Giants, Houston found itself in second place, one game behind the Cardinals. Manager Larry Dierker was facing heavy criticism for pitching around Bonds, and the Houston bandwagon was nearly empty. Only the die-hard fans, it seemed, still held out hope for the team.
With the season slipping from their grasp, the Astros traveled to St. Louis for their final three games of the season. Despite being one game behind the Cardinals, the Astros held the divisional tie-breaker and could win the NL Central title by winning two of the three road games. What came next was the most thrilling game of the season. Wade Miller gave up only one run, but St. Louis ace Matt Morris held Houston scoreless for seven innings. The Astros finally broke through in the 8th to tie the game and Lance Berkman hit a right-handed homer, his first of the season, in the top of the 9th to give Houston a 2-1 lead. Billy Wagner then induced a bases-loaded double play grounder in bottom of the 9th to move Houston into a first place tie. After losing the following game, the Astros sent Shane Reynolds to the mound to pitch for the division crown against ex-Astro Darryl Kile. There was little drama, however, as Houston clubbed the Cardinals, 9-2, in a game where the loser was still guaranteed a wildcard spot in the playoffs. But with the last-minute turnaround, Houston seemed to regain its earlier momentum just in time to face their October nemesis, the Atlanta Braves.By Astro Daily
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