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The Astros appeared to have a ceiling above them in more ways than one. While the Reds and Dodgers took turns dominating the division throughout the decade, the Astros seemed to be stuck in the neutral. 1978 proved to be a down year as the Astros fell to fifth place with a 74-88 mark. Part of the problem was money. The Astros were not active in the newly-formed free agent market and could not afford to bring in players who would cost a lot. Most of the Houston stars were developed by the club or acquired cheap like used cars. Ford Motor Credit Co. was actively searching for a buyer.
There was no depth to overcome ailments. Cesar Cedeno was lost for most of the season with a knee injury. Art Howe suffered a broken finger. The catching situation was a mess. So needy were they at one point that the Astros flew Luis Pujols in by helicopter from the minors where he was promptly dropped into action. Pujols batted .131 the rest of the season.
Jose Cruz took over as the leader on offense with a .315 average, 83 RBIs and 37 steals. Bob Watson, on a bit of a down year, still led the club with 14 homers. Enos Cabell set a club record with 195 hits. He also batted .295, drove in 71 runs and stole 33 bases.
The only man on the pitching staff who had an outstanding season was J.R. Richard. He fired back-to-back shutouts in May. In his last outing on September 28th against Atlanta, he struck out six to give him 303 strikeouts for the season. He was the first National League righthander to reach that plateau. To cap his day, J.R. homered off Larry McWilliams and won his 18th game of the year.
The Astros had a Hollywood ending to a game at Los Angeles on April 21st. Up by two with two men on in the bottom of the ninth, Watson stabbed a liner at first base and stepped on the bag for the second out. He then fired to Roger Metzger at second base who beat the Dodger runner to the bag, completing a triple play to win the ballgame. But Hollywood would wear Dodger Blue the rest of the season as L. A. won the National League crown.
While the year was lackluster, the pieces were beginning to fall into place for the future. Denny Walling, Dave Bergman and Rafael Landestoy were becoming talented reserves. Joe Niekro and Ken Forsch were turning into dependable starting pitchers. Lefty Joe Sambito was getting comfortable as the bullpen closer. The Astros were getting nearer to challenging for the first pennant in their history.By Astro Daily