After a disappointing campaign in 2002, the first with new manager Jimy Williams, the arrival of Spring Training restored hope among Houston fans that the team would enjoy playoff success in 2003. But the change in seasons was not the only cause for hope. During the off-season, General Manager Gerry Hunsicker made a big move, signing All-Star second baseman Jeff Kent to a three-year contract.
Kent's specialty was hitting, and he was just two years removed from an MVP season with the Giants in which he clouted 33 homers and rang up a .334 batting average. To say that fans were excited about the biggest free-agent signing since Nolan Ryan in 1980 would be an understatement. There was one problem, however, and that was what to do with the team's existing All-Star second baseman, Craig Biggio.
Since Kent was less flexible defensively, Biggio volunteered to play centerfield for the team. This allowed the team to move Lance Berkman to left field, where he was more suited, and to trade outfielder Daryle Ward to the Los Angeles Dodgers for pitching prospect Ruddy Lugo -- younger brother of shortstop Julio Lugo.
One last roster move shocked Astros fans on the last week of Spring Training: the release of Shane Reynolds. Reynolds had underperformed in the Spring, so the team decided to take a chance on youngster Jeriome Robertson. Although widely condemned at the time, the move would eventually turn out to be a good one.
Houston floundered through April with an 11-15 record, but soon turned things around with another personnel move. After shortstop Julio Lugo was arrested and charged with spousal abuse, owner Drayton McLane quickly released Lugo and gave young star Adam Everett a full-time job. The club quickly ran off two seven-game winning streaks and found themselves in first place in early June.
June 11th was a memorable day for the franchise. Playing at Yankee Stadium, the club was forced to use six relievers when starter Roy Oswalt left the game with an injury after the first inning. Remarkably, all seven pitchers held the Yankees hitless, resulting in one of the most unlikely no-hitters in baseball history. The pitching gem set a Major League record for most pitchers used in a no-hitter and also marked only the third opposing no-hitter in Yankee history. Octavio Dotel tied another Major League record when he struck out 4 batters in the 8th inning.
By the All-Star break, the Astros were leading the NL Central division by 1.5 games with a 50-44 record. Billy Wagner was the team's lone representative, tossing a scoreless inning against the American League stars.
Houston continued to play well but could not put much distance between themselves and the Chicago Cubs. It didn't help that Roy Oswalt, the team's best starter, was missing considerable time due to recurring hamstring injuries. By September 19th, the Astros were 15 games over .500 with a 84-69 record, but remained only 1.5 games ahead of the Cubs. That marked the point at which the wheels fell off for the team.
The club lost five of its next seven games, finding itself in a first-place tie with the Cubs with just three games remaining. Although the Astros had three games against a weak team in Milwaukee, the Cubs shared similar prospects against the hapless Reds. The entire season had come down to which of the two teams could win more games against a weak opponent with little incentive to play well.
The answer came quickly. Houston played inept ball, losing their first two games against the Brewers, while the Cubs quickly eliminated the Astros with two easy wins over the Reds. It was a disappointing end to a season that had been filled with promise.
For the season, Richard Hidalgo enjoyed an offensive rebound, swatting 28 homers and leading the team with a .309 average. Defensively, he racked up 22 outfield assists, breaking the decades-old team record held by Jim Wynn. For his superlative play, Hidalgo was named the team's Most Valuable Player.
Jeff Bagwell had another fine season with 39 homers and 100 RBI, although his average dropped to .278. Morgan Ensberg had a breakout season at third base with 25 homers and a .291 average. Lance Berkman and Jeff Kent also hit more than 20 homers, with 25 and 22, respectively. In his first full season, Adam Everett proved he could hit big league pitching with eight homers and a .256 average.
Despite a 5.10 ERA, Jeriome Robertson led the pitching staff with 15 wins, establishing a new team record for rookies. Tim Redding led the rotation with a 3.68 ERA, but settled for a disappointing 10-14 record. Wade Miller won 14 games and led the staff with 161 strikeouts. Roy Oswalt missed two months of the season with hamstring injuries, but still managed a 10-5 record and 2.97 ERA over 21 starts.
The bullpen was dominated by impressed performances from four pitchers, each tossing over 80 innings. Billy Wagner presided over his peers, logging 44 saves and an astounding 1.78 ERA. Octavio Dotel was 'automatic' in the setup role, finishing with a 2.48 ERA for the season. Youngsters Brad Lidge (3.60 ERA) and Ricky Stone (3.69 ERA) also pitched very well in relief.By Astro Daily
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