Under Manager Phil Garner, the Houston Astros had become accustomed to living on the edge. They staged a miraculous rally in 2004 to clinch a playoff berth on the last day of the regular season. The next year, they also waited for the last day to secure a postseason bid.
In 2006, the Astros almost managed to do the near-impossible three years in a row. After a wonderful April got them off to a hot start, they were ten games over .500 at 19-9 in early May. From there until September 19th, they slogged through an unimpressive 53-67 summer before suddenly catching fire at the brink of elimination.
While the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals began a freefall that brought comparisons to the collapse of the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies, the Astros ran off nine straight wins (including a four-game sweep of the Cardinals) to leap back into contention. They climbed from 8-1/2 games back to a half-game behind in the span of two weeks.
Alas, the Cardinals took two-of-three from Milwaukee while Houston lost two-of-three in Atlanta on the final weekend to hold off the charge, preventing the Astros from tasting the postseason. Their ship righted, St. Louis took their 83-78 ballclub all the way to a World's Championship.
Houston's final record of 82-80 doesn't reveal how dysfunctional their season was. Seemingly, the team was making more noise off the field than on.
After the joy of their first World Series appearance faded, slugger Jeff Bagwell fought with management for a chance to go to Spring Training. His arthritic shoulder was the subject of a $15.6 million dollar insurance claim and the team did not want to jeopardize the claim by having him play again. Bagwell got the chance to play in the spring but his shoulder would not allow him to throw so he sat out the season and eventually retired, ending a career many feel will land him in Cooperstown some day.
Then there was another future Hall-of-Famer, pitcher Roger Clemens. Houston did not offer the 43-year-old hurler arbitration so they were not allowed to sign him until May 1st. Clemens appeared at the World Baseball Classic for the USA in March and was wooed by other teams while mulling retirement. He kept his options open until finally re-signing with the Astros in late May for a record $22 million dollar contract. After a rock-star-like trip through the minors tuning up, Clemens made his first start for the Astros on June 22nd, a 4-2 loss to Minnesota.
Lack of run support was a constant theme for Clemens who struggled to a 7-6 record despite a 2.30 ERA. The "Big Three" of Clemens, Roy Oswalt (15-8, 2.98) and Andy Pettitte (14-13, 4.20) were able to keep Houston winning but the rest of the rotation struggled, turning into an open audition for Wandy Rodriguez (9-10, 5.64), Taylor Buchholz (6-10, 5.89), Fernando Nieve (3-3, 4.20), Chris Sampson (2-1, 2.12), Jason Hirsh (3-4, 6.04) and Matt Albers (0-2, 6.00). Popular veteran Brandon Backe (3-2, 3.77) was lost early to injury.
The offense saw dramatic fall-offs from third baseman Morgan Ensberg (.235 batting, 23 home runs, 58 runs batted in) and outifelder Jason Lane (.201-15-45). Free agent acquisition Preston Wilson (.269-9-55) and midseason trade pickup Aubrey Huff (.250-13-38) also disappointed.
There were only two bright spots in the woeful attack. Lance Berkman (.315-45-136), who played well enough to finish fourth in the league in homers and third in RBIs, continued to show why he is among the most lethal players in the game. Midseason call-up Luke Scott (.336-10-37 in 65 games) put on a surge that never seemed to fade.
The rest of the club plodded through years best described as mediocre. Outfielders Willy Taveras (.278-1-30) and Chris Burke (.276-9-40), infielders Craig Biggio (.246-21-62) and Adam Everett (.239-6-59) and catcher Brad Ausmus (.230-2-39) saw regular playing time yet struggled to score runs. Versatile reserves Mike Lamb (.307-12-45) and Eric Bruntlett (.277-0-10) were juggled in and out as Garner searched for answers to his lineup.
The Astros actually scored 42 more runs than they had in 2005 but the pitching allowed 110 more runs. Besides the struggles at the back of the rotation, the bullpen was less dependable. Closer Brad Lidge ballooned to a 1-5 record and 5.72 ERA. Despite 32 saves, his control problems were a constant source of irritation. He was demoted for awhile but neither Dan Wheeler (3-5, 2.52, 9) nor Chad Qualls (7-3, 3.76, 0) seized the opportunity. Still, bullpen woes were constant throughout the league and Houston's ranked well in comparison.
It was another year of milestones for the 40-year-old Biggio who finished needing just 70 more hits to reach 3,000 for his career. He also moved within the top ten all time in doubles (637).
Clemens continued his climb up the all-time lists too, besting Greg Maddux and the Cubs on July 19th. He would finish the season eighth in career wins (348), 15 ahead of Maddux.
The kids also made some history. Taveras set a club record with a 30-game hitting streak from July 27th to August 27th. On July 28th, Luke Scott became the sixth Astro to hit for the cycle, during a loss to Arizona. On September 4th in Philadelphia, Charlton Jimerson became the third Astro to hit a homer in his first major league at-bat, although Houston lost again.
The Astros set but lost another milestone. It took 44 years to climb back to a .500 franchise record after the dismal expansion years of the 1960s but they got there on April 18th at 3,507-3,507. They ended the season eight games below the midlevel mark. Although Garner's contract was extended, his pitching and hitting coaches were replaced, signaling that better results are expected.By Astro Daily
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