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Expansion and trades had dramatically changed the Houston Astros for the coming season. In the past 18 months, the team had lost or traded away Bob Aspromonte, John Bateman, Ron Brand, Mike Cuellar, Dave Giusti, Sonny Jackson, Rusty Staub and closer Claude Raymond. Some of the new faces were catcher Johnny Edwards, outfielder Jesus Alou, infielder Denis Menke and pitcher Denny Lemaster.
Curt Blefary was the new first baseman in town. He came from the Baltimore Orioles for Cuellar after the trade of Rusty Staub to the expansion Montreal Expos turned sour. Originally, the Astros had agreed to get Alou and slugger Donn Clendenon for the popular Staub but Clendenon retired rather than agree to play in Houston. Instead of voiding the deal, new baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn told Montreal to rework the trade. The Expos sent two pitchers and cash rather than Clendenon, who was then traded to the New York Mets and World Series glory.
Yes, the Mets, who entered the National League along with Houston in 1962, not only won the league crown to finish the decade but topped the Orioles for the World's Championship. It meant the Astros had suddenly run out of excuses. Expansion provided two more teams that were worse than Houston and the six-team divisional alignment provided a new type of pennant race - one the Astros would quickly find themselves in.
April ended with a 4-20 record capped by a 10-0, no-hit loss to Cincinnati's Jim Maloney. Don Wilson was angry with the way the Reds showed up his team and sought revenge. He got it in most dramatic fashion, tossing the second no-hitter of his career on May 1st. He had yet to turn 25, but Wilson stood behind only Sandy Koufax for career no-hit wins.
From that, the Astros ignited. Six days later, the defense set the tone when they tied a major league mark by turning seven double plays. Blefary set a record by participating in all seven. By the end of the month, the Astros had put together a ten-game winning streak. Doug Rader was a key contributor. His grand slam in the bottom of the ninth on May 27th sunk the Phillies, 6-2. The next night, with the bases full again, Rader singled for a 7-6, ten-inning victory. Afterwards, Rader apologized to the fans for not winning the game with another homer.
The infield tandem of Menke and Joe Morgan provided sock as well as defense. Menke led the club with 90 runs batted in, an astonishing total for a shortstop. Morgan clubbed 15 homers and swiped 49 bases, combining power and speed.
Houston was the center of the world's attention in late July as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. The Astros provided their own moon shots during a July 30th doubleheader in New York. Menke and Wynn belted grand slam homers in the same inning, the first time it had happened in the National League since 1890. Even the pitchers got into the act as Larry Dierker spanked a homer off Nolan Ryan and portly closer Fred Gladding got the only hit of his career.
The bats were still hot in Montreal as Blefary tagged a ball so far that it tried to cool itself. Blefary would end the year with 12 round-trippers. Jim Wynn would lead the assault with 33 home runs.
On September 10th, Wynn and Menke struck again to beat the Dodgers, 8-1. The Astros were tied for fourth in the new Western Division but they were only two games out of first place! After seven fruitless seasons, Houston fans could cheer their team in an actual pennant race. Club management was given permission to print World Series tickets.
The pressure proved to be too much. Three days later in Atlanta, Dierker was one out shy of a no-hitter when Felix Millan broke it up with a single. Dierker continued the scoreless tie through the twelfth. The Astros broke through for two runs in 13th only to see ex-teammates Jackson and Aspromonte lead a three-run Braves comeback. It was a turning point as Houston slid to fifth place and Atlanta went on to win the division.
Dierker could console himself four days later when he beat San Francisco, 2-1, to become the team's first 20-game winner. It was a magnificent season for the 22-year-old who logged four shutouts, 20 complete games, 232 strikeouts and sported a nifty 2.33 ERA. His team could also celebrate the first non-losing season in franchise history, going 81-81. The achievement paled compared to the Mets Miracle but it signaled a new era of competitiveness for the Houston club.By TBP