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In their 42-year history, the Astros had never had a year like this one - a season filled with so much anticipation and then so much disappointment only to then go on such a hot streak when everyone had left them for dead, clinching a wild card playoff berth on the last day of the season and then taking two postseason series to the limit. As they had done the first time they made the playoffs in 1980, they ended one win short of making the World Series but it was a roller coaster ride fans will not soon forget.
It started when lefthader Andy Pettitte, a man with more postseason wins than the Houston franchise at the time, signed as a free agent. Pettitte then convinced his best friend, Yankee teammate and Houston resident Roger Clemens, to end his brief retirement and join him. Clemens, a certain Hall-of-Famer with over 300 wins, made Houston fans giddy with excitement. The Astros already had two quality starters in Wade Miller and Roy Oswalt so the thought of having four great pitchers in the rotation to go with an explosive offense made Houston fans optimistic of a championship. Owner Drayton McLane had proclaimed 2004 "our year".
The season started out well, going 13-9 in April and staying close to the fast-starting St. Louis Cardinals. But Pettitte's elbow landed him on the disabled list and the bats slumped in May. They were under .500 for June and were falling well behind the Cardinals. Many blamed Manager Jimy Williams for the losses but McLane did not want to make a change until after the All-Star Game, hosted at Minute Maid Park.
In late June, the team received a boost when it landed imminent free agent center fielder Carlos Beltran from Kansas City in exchange for closer Octavio Dotel and a minor league catcher. The bullpen regrouped with Brad Lidge as the new closer but the set-up pitching was questionable at best. The situation became worse when Miller was lost for the rest of the season to a shoulder injury. Later, Pettitte was lost again to elbow surgery.
Houston skidded into the All-Star Break at 44-44, in fifth place in the division and 10-1/2 games behind the Cardinals. After he was booed by the home crowd when introduced on national television at the All-Star Game, Williams was fired. Former Astro infielder Phil Garner took the reins.
The additions of Beltran and Garner didn't seem to help much and a season that began with such promise was deserted by almost everyone by August 14th when the club fell to 56-60, 19-1/2 games behind St. Louis and seven games behind the Chicago Cubs for the wild card berth.
Only the Astros themselves must have felt they still had a chance and, with a comeback win in Montreal the next day, the ballclub began their rise from the ashes. They won eight of their next ten, and, after a loss to the Cubs on August 26th, reeled off a team-record 12 straight victories to vault back into the race. The once-lethargic bats came alive, scoring seven or more runs in ten of those wins, What was left of the rotation featured Clemens (18-4, 2.98 ERA) and Oswalt (20-10, 3.49) surrounded by a hodgepodge of converted reliever Brandon Backe (5-3, 4.30), Tim Redding (5-7, 5.72), Pete Munro (4-7, 5.15) and Carlos Hernandez (1-3, 6.43).
Behind an offense led by outfielders Lance Berkman (.316 average, 30 HRs, 106 RBIs), Craig Biggio (.281, 24, 63) and Beltran (.258, 23, 53) as well as infielders Jeff Bagwell (.266, 27,89) and Jeff Kent (.289, 27,107), Houston's offense became more aggressive and got hot in the nick of time, passing Cincinnati, New York, Philadelphia, Florida, San Diego and Chicago in the wild card standings.
On the final weekend of the season, while ex-Astro Steve Finley and the Dodgers put the final nail in San Francisco's chances, the Astros swept the Rockies for their seventh straight win to clinch the last playoff berth on the last day of the season. It had been an amazing run, going 36-10 from August 15th to October 3rd, ending with a record of 92-70. Perhaps it could still be "our year" after all.
The club could look back on some milestones. Clemens struck out Raul Mondesi in a 6-2 win on May 5th to pass Steve Carlton for second place behind Nolan Ryan on the all-time strikeout list with 4,137. He also posted his 329th victory to rank tenth all-time and capped off his year with his seventh Cy Young Award. Biggio achieved his 2,500th career hit against Atlanta on May 8th. Kent set a new team record with a 25-game hitting streak climaxing on June 11th at Milwaukee. Lidge struck out four batters in an inning while Backe struck out the side on nine pitches.
Clemens was slated to pitch the season finale and get the Astros into the playoffs but a stomach virus made him too weak to go. Backe, a converted outfielder who became a reliever and was then turned into a starting pitcher earlier in the season, was chosen instead to beat the Rockies.
Being a former outfielder helped as Backe stroked a two-run single in the second to give himself an early lead. Berkman, Kent and Jose Vizcaino followed with run-producing hits in the third for a 5-0 advantage.
With two on in the sixth, Chad Harville took the mound. Backe sat in the dugout as Harville, Mike Gallo, Chad Qualls, Russ Springer and Dan Miceli each had their turns to subdue the Colorado lineup.The Rockies closed the margin to 5-3.
Lidge came in to get four strikeouts for the final four outs, sending the full Minute Maid Park crowd into celebration. Clemens had two more days to rest up and start Game One of the playoffs.By TBP