The normally boy-scoutish Astros found themselves in one controversy after another in 2008. And while they ultimately didn't reach the post-season, they exceeded most expectations and certainly filled more than their share of column inches.
After their first losing season in seven years, owner Drayton McLane had fired his manager and general manager, promising changes. New GM Ed Wade delivered, getting rid of much of the bullpen and the infield in moves that many found questionable. Some worked and others didn't.
In November, Wade traded closer Brad Lidge to Philadelphia where he would go an entire season without blowing a save while helping the Phillies win the World Series. The main player received in the deal was outfielder Michael Bourn who dazzled with his speed and defense but struggled terribly at the plate.
Wade also signed infielders Geoff Blum and Kazuo Matsui along with reliever Doug Brocail while trading for reliever Oscar Villarreal.
In December, Wade continued the overhaul by dealing eight players in three days, receiving shortstop Miguel Tejada and closer Jose Valverde in return.
The day after he was traded, Tejada's name surfaced in the report filed by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, investigating the use of banned substances in baseball, mostly those rumored to give players an unfair performance boost. Despite a signed check to a player linked to the scandal, Tejada insisted he didn't do anything wrong and that the injections he took were of vitamin B-12.
Also named in the Mitchell Report were former Astro pitchers Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. The accusations came from the testimony of their former personal trainer, Brian McNamee. Although both pitchers played for the New York Yankees before and after their time in Houston, including the bulk of the time their steroid use was alleged, most media reports continued to identify them as Houston Astros which, with the newly-arrived Tejada, created an unfair taint against the organization.
While Pettitte eventually admitted to using human growth hormone, his buddy Clemens became the most vociferous in his denials. In an act that proceeded all the way to the halls of Congress, Clemens issued denial after denial while, at the same time, convincing less and less people of his innocence. By the end of the year, Clemens' legal woes were still ongoing.
While Clemens made an appearance at spring training as part of his personal services contract with the Astros, and to coach his son Koby who was in the minor league camp, the media swirl around him created too big a distraction and he agreed not to return. Tejada's name was not out of the news either as Congress requested the FBI to open an investigation of the former Oriole with regard to testimony he had given in a previous case against teammate Rafael Palmeiro.
Wade continued to add pieces to his revamped roster, including the spring signing of pitcher Shawn Chacon to a $2 million deal. Chacon, the product of Hispanic and African-American parents, said he agreed to play in Houston because of their African-American manager, Cecil Cooper.
Starting pitching appeared to be a major concern in the spring and it shocked many when the Astros ate the second year of veteran starter Woody Williams' contract before the season began. Chacon was inserted into the rotation. Pre-season predictions ranged from third place to fifth.
After a stumbling start, Lance Berkman and his teammates caught fire in May. The Astros won 11 of 13 and increased their record to 29-22, one game out of first near the end of the month. Berkman batted .471 with nine homers, 22 RBIs and a 1.409 OPS in May, prompting early talk of an MVP season.
Tejada's name resurfaced in the news after an ambush interview by an ESPN reporter revealed that the Dominican was two years older than his listed age. He admitted to the front office a day before the story aired that he was 33, not 31 as officially listed. It is not uncommon for Latin scouts to be provided with altered birth records because players fear being rejected as too old or too young for the scouts to recommend them.
Back on the field, Valverde proved his toughness on May 23rd when he was hit in the face by a Pedro Feliz liner yet got up and stayed in the game, to complete a 4-3 victory over the Phillies. Papa Grande may have had staying power, but his teammates saw their success slipping.
Not even the bizarre events of June 25th could shake them out of their doldrums. After setting a big league record for the most no-decisions to start a season, Chacon was demoted to the bullpen. The righthander's disagreements with Cooper and pitching coach Dewey Robinson boiled over into outright insubordination. When Cooper complained to Wade, the general manager went down to the clubhouse himself for a confrontation with the sulking hurler. Words became heated then the 6-3, 200-lb. Chacon pushed Wade to the ground and wrapped his hands around Wade's throat before being pulled off of him.
"He needed to know who he was dealing with," an angry Chacon told reporters. Message received. The next day, Chacon was released.
Cooper, himself, was in management's crosshairs. McLane had hiked prices for the June home games against the Yankees and Red Sox, the first time the two marquee franchises had played regular-season games in Houston. Cooper rested a dinged-up Berkman, as well as other starters, in a 13-0 loss to New York on June 15th before booing fans.
At the All-Star Break, the Astros were 44-51 and 13 games out of first place. Season over, right?
Not to McLane and not to Wade. After late-season resurrections in 2004, 2005 and 2006, management wasn't ready to throw in the towel. Instead of dealing away veterans before the trade deadline as most reporters expected, Wade sent minor-leaguers to San Diego for lefty Randy Wolf and to the Yankees for reliever LaTroy Hawkins. Wade was crucified in the press for not seeing the obvious.
Instead, it was the press that looked foolish. From July 27th, the Astros posted the best record in the majors despite absorbing some blows along the way.
After a slow start, outfielder Carlos Lee had quietly put up solid numbers. He drove in his 100th run on August 8th with a 4-for-5 performance at Cincinnati. The next day, Lee suffered a shattered pinkie finger when he was hit by a pitch from Bronson Arroyo. Season over, right?
Yes, for Lee. No, for the Astros. Roy Oswalt shook off a bad first half of the season to pitch like the ace of old. Wolf, who was 6-10 with the Padres before the trade, picked up his game. Hawkins and Valverde made a very effective bullpen combination late in games.
Ty Wigginton had been a mediocre third baseman for much of the season but he moved to left field when Lee got hurt and suddenly began to hit like he was Carlos Lee. After slugging nine homers in the first four months, Wigginton exploded for 12 long balls in August while hitting .379.
Houston was 21-9 for the month and 71-66 entering September yet were still mired in fourth place.
Despite Berkman slumping for most of the second half and Wigginton cooling off in September, the Astros seemed to be winning with mirrors as they shoved their way into the wild card debate, pushing past St. Louis and other contenders. Houston won 14 of 15, including five shutouts, to reach an 80-67 record on September 11th. They were just three games behind faltering Milwaukee for the wild card spot. Another left-for-dead Astros team was making an amazing march into the playoffs.
Then Hurricane Ike struck.
The high Category 2 storm hit near Galveston Island on the morning of September 13th and ruined plans for the Astros to host the Chicago Cubs for a weekend series. Despite Minute Maid Park surviving in playable shape, much of the Houston area was without power and certainly filled with greater concerns than baseball. The Cubs had refused to fly to Houston before the storm and were not interested in trying to fly there afterwards, insisting the series be moved to a neutral site.
That "neutral" site turned out to be Miller Park in Milwaukee, a 90-minute drive from Chicago and the park filled with Cub fans who booed the exhausted and shell-shocked Astros. Only two contests from the three-game series could be squeezed in. The increasingly angry Houston club managed just one hit in those two games, losing both.
The anger was shared by those fans back home that still had contact with the outside world. Blame was pointed at the Cubs, McLane and, most notably, Commissioner Bud Selig for allowing home field advantage in a tight pennant race to be shifted in Chicago's favor. Outside of Illinois and Wisconsin, sympathy was generally with the Astros but the ballclub had definitely lost their momentum.
Season over, right?
Not entirely. The still weary team, sleepwalked through a three-game series at Florida and would have been eliminated if the teams ahead of them weren't having their own struggles. The Astros then won six of their last nine to finish with a record of 86-75, third place in the Central Division in Cooper's first full season at the helm.
Philadelphia, built mostly with players Wade had drafted while running the Phillies, won it all. In karmic justice, the Cubs and Brewers were both eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, quickly killing hopes for something more special.
Individually, most of the Astros had good seasons but, collectively, the Astros were 11th in the league in runs scored (712) and 8th in runs allowed (743). The entire starting infield batted .280 or better with Berkman (.312 average, 29 homers, 106 RBIs) leading the club in home runs and runs batted in. Matsui (.293, 6, 33) struggled through injuries to his back and his, ummm, backside. Tejada (.283, 13, 66) and Wigginton (.285, 23, 58) also produced in spurts but it seemed the quartet were never able to get more than two of them clicking at the same time. Reserves Blum (.240, 14, 53), Mark Loretta (.280, 4, 38) and David Newhan (.260, 2, 12) all contributed when called upon.
Left fielder Lee (.314, 28, 100) was beginning to work his name into the MVP race when his season was cut short. Right fielder Hunter Pence (.269, 25, 83) survived a crash through a glass door in spring training to provide adequate sophomore numbers after a bad start. Bourn (.229, 5, 29, 41 steals) had to be dropped from the leadoff spot in the order due to a lack of production. Reserve Darin Erstad (.276, 4, 31) saw a lot of action as the regulars struggled.
The catching trio of Brad Ausmus (.218, 3, 24), J.R. Towles (.137, 4, 16) and Humberto Quintero (.226, 2 ,12) underwhelmed at the plate, particularly rookie Towles whom much more was expected from after his 2007 debut.
Oswalt (17 wins, 10 losses, 3.54 ERA) led the starting rotation in practically every category despite being very ordinary the first half of the year. The highlight for him was a complete game one-hitter tossed at the Colorado Rockies on September 6th. Wandy Rodriguez (9-7, 3.54), Brian Moehler (11-8, 4.56) and Brandon Backe (9-14, 6.05) spent most of the year in a starting role. Chacon (2-3, 5.04) was eventually replaced by Wolf (6-2, 3.57).
Valverde (6-3, 3.38) led the National League with 44 saves for the second year in a row. He was the first Astro to win the saves title since Fred Gladding in 1969. Others in the bullpen were Brocail (7-5, 3.93), Chris Sampson (6-4, 4.22), Hawkins (2-0, 0.43), Geoff Geary (2-3, 2.53) and lefties Wesley Wright (4-3, 5.01) and Tim Byrdak (2-1, 3.90).
Few would have predicted the Astros would finish 11 games over .500 but there are those who say the Pythagorean record of 77-84 more accurately reflected how the team played. But, win or lose, the Astros were not boring to watch either on or off the field.By Astro Daily
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