Thursday, February 10, 2011

Agony of the Astros

The past 10 seasons or so have put an end to a lot of World Series misery for suffering franchises. The Red Sox, White Sox, Angels and Giants all won historic titles for their teams. The Cardinals and Phillies gave a new generation a title of their own. And of course those poor suffering Yankee fans got their first title in 9 seasons.

But one team that continues to torment their fans will begin their 49th season with little hope for their first World Series title.

The Astros finally won a pennant in 2005, but their team is still ringless.

Usually the Astros aren’t mentioned as one of the long suffering teams. Perhaps because they don’t have the long history dating to black and white film the way the Red Sox and Cubs and Indians droughts did.

Maybe it is because Houston isn’t considered to be a baseball town. (I have never stepped foot in Houston, but I have interacted with a lot of passionate Astros fans on line… I bet it is a bigger baseball town than people give them credit for.)

Or maybe it is because the Astros have oddly tried to shake their cool identity as the team of the future with some faux old fashioned nostalgia. But I already wrote about that.

But either way, a close look at Houston Astros post season history shows a staggering number of close games, walk off losses and games ending with the winning run either at the plate or on base.

They participated in 3 of the greatest League Championship Series in history (2 of which were overshadowed by a Boston and New York classic but have stood the test of time as heart stopping.)

A bounce here or a catch there, the Astros could have several more pennants or a World Series title. Instead they have a litany of post season losses that makes even this hardened Red Sox fan say “Wow… these games are rough.”

Yes they have had a few victories that should always be remembered. (Jeff Kent’s walk off shot in the 2004 NLCS or the 18 inning marathon capped off by Chris Burke’s home run in 2005 come to mind.) But those are outweighed by the heart break.

Even the greatest moment in the team’s history (the 2005 NLCS) is best remembered for a 9th inning collapse.

So look away Astros fans… these are the post season games the Astros lost where either the other team won in their last at bat or Houston had the winning run at the plate.

October 11, 1980.
PHILLIES 5, ASTROS 3 - 10 innings.
The Astros were one game from winning the National League pennant. They built a 2-0 lead and loaded the bases in the 6th inning, knocking out Phillies ace Steve Carlton. Luis Pujols hit a sacrifice fly to make it 3-0, but the umpire ruled that Gary Woods left third too early and was called out on the appeal.

Pete Rose led a go ahead rally with some clutch hitting and alert base running in the 8th. Terry Puhl tied the game for the Astros in the 9th and was on first base representing the 1980 pennant. Instead Enos Cabel hit a drive to right field and Phillies outfielder Bake McBride picked off Puhl going back to first.

In the 10th, the Phillies got a pair of 2 out RBI doubles to take the lead for good.

October 12, 1980
PHILLIES 8, ASTROS 7 - 10 innings

The Astros tied the game in the 6th and took a 5-2 lead with a wild 7th inning rally and were only 6 outs from the World Series with Nolan Ryan on the mound.

The Phillies got a run and Joe Sambito came in with the bases loaded and nobody out. He got an out but let up a run. Ken Forsch got Mike Schmidt to strike out looking... 4 outs from the Series.

But Del Unser tied the game with a single and Manny Trillo gave the Phillies the lead on a triple. But in the bottom of the 8th, the Astros rallied off of Tug McGraw and had the go ahead run on third when Denny Walling grounded out.

In the bottom of the 9th, Dave Bergman, Alan Ashby and Craig Reynolds all came to the plate representing the pennant. They went down 1-2-3. Garry Maddox hit a 2 out double to give the Phillies the lead for good in the 10th and for good measure caught the pennant clinching out.

The Astros lost an NLCS where in two different innings they could have won with a single 9th inning run. The Phillies would go on to win the World Series

October 10, 1981

With the player's strike forcing a Divisional Playoff in 1981, the Astros won the first two games in extra innings and needed just one win in Chavez Ravine to get back to the NLCS.

The Dodgers won Game 3 and sent ace Fernando Valenzuela to the mound for Game 4. Vern Ruhle pitched well for the Astros but let up a home run to Pedro Guerrero and an RBI hit to Bill Russell.

Valenzuela didn't let a runner get into scoring position until the 8th, but in the 9th, the Astros got on the board and had the go ahead run at the plate in the form of Jose Cruz. He popped up to catcher Mike Scioscia. The Astros would lose Game 5 and complete the collapse blowing a 2-0 series lead.

The Dodgers would go on to win the World Series.

October 11, 1986

The Astros had a very simple strategy for winning the 1986 pennant against the favored Mets: Have Mike Scott win his three games and steal another game somewhere else.

When Houston took a 4-0 second inning lead in Game 3, it looked like they were well on their way to a win. Darryl Strawberry tied the game with a 6th inning homer but Ray Knight's error in the 7th opened up a go ahead rally for the Astros in the 7th.

In the bottom of the 9th, just 2 outs away from taking a 2-1 series lead and handing the ball to Scott for game 4, Lenny Dykstra hit a 2 run, come from behind walk off home run to give the Mets the win.

October 14, 1986
METS 2, ASTROS 1 - 12 innings

Mike Scott did indeed give the Astros a series tying win in Game 4. Not to be outdone, Nolan Ryan threw a masterpiece in Game 5. 9 innings, 1 walk, 12 strikeouts and only 2 hits. It is a line to win 9 out of 10 times.

But one of the hits was a home run by Darryl Strawberry and the Astros could only get one run off of Dwight Gooden over 10 innings.

Houston left runners in scoring position in the 2nd, 5th, 8th and 10th. In the 12th, Wally Backman singled, moved to second on a botched pickoff play and came home on Gary Carter's walk off single.

October 15, 1986
METS 7, ASTROS 6 - 16 innings

Without question, one of the greatest playoff games in baseball history. The Astros ran up a 3-0 lead in the first inning and with the specter of Mike Scott looming for a Game 7, looked like they were in control. Bob Knepper was nothing short of brilliant, much like Ryan was the day before.

But the Mets bullpen shut down the Astros after the first and the Mets rallied in the 9th with 3 runs. Dave Smith let up two 3-2 walks before Ray Knight tied the game with a sacrifice fly.

In the 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th a single run would have won the game for the Astros. 16 batters came to the plate, each with the ability to win the game. 15 of them were retired.

The Mets scored in the 14th but Billy Hatcher tied the game with a home run with the Astros 2 outs from elimination. Then 5 more batters came to the plate with the ability to end the game between the 14th and 15th. All were retired.

The Houston bats didn't come to life until the Mets took a 3 run 16th inning lead. The Astros scored twice and had the tying run on second and the winning run on first. Jesse Orosco struck out Kevin Bass to end the marathon.

Mike Scott never did get that third start despite two games where the Astros had a 9th inning lead and another game where an ace threw a masterpiece.

The Mets went on to win the World Series.

September 29, 1998

The 1998 Astros won 102 games and with newly acquired ace Randy Johnson were not just happy to win the Division. They had a pennant on their mind.

Johnson pitched well, going 8 innings with 9 strikeouts and 1 walk. But the Padres were also renting an ace. Kevin Brown went 8 strong with 2 hits and an amazing 16 strikeouts.

Down 2-0 in the 9th, the Astros faced relief ace Trevor Hoffman and rallied. Moises Alou tied the game with a hit and an error by Ken Caminiti. Carl Everett represented the winning run at the plate but flew out to center field to end the threat.

The Padres would win the series and go on to win the National League pennant.

October 8, 1999
BRAVES 5, ASTROS 3 - 12 innings.

The Astros had a chance to take a 2-1 series lead with a game 3 win. And with Tom Glavine looking wild in the first inning, Houston's chances looked good. But Glavine settled down and eventually the Braves took a 3-2 lead.

In the 7th, the Astros tied the game but left the bases loaded. In the 9th inning, where a single run could have won the game, the Astros went 1-2-3.

Then came the 10th... one of the most underrated innings in terms of team agony. The Astros loaded the bases with nobody out. John Rocker got one out with a force at home. Then Tony Eusebio hit a grounder up the middle that looked destined to go into centerfield for a walk off hit.

Veteran Walt Weiss dove for the ball but still had to make a play. He threw a strike home getting Ken Caminiti at the plate for out number two. Rocker got out of the inning.

In the 11th, the Astros left another runner stranded before the Braves put up a pair of 2 out runs in the 12th. Kevin Millwood, on 1 days rest after throwing a complete game in Game 2 got the save for Atlanta.

The Braves would close out the series the next day and eventually go on to win the National League Pennant.

October 10, 2001

The Astros had homefield advantage throughout the postseason for the first time since 1980 and looked to overturn the Braves in the Division Series.

After blowing a 3-2 8th inning lead to lose Game 1, they looked to even the series in Game 2. Dave Mlicki went up against Tom Glavine and held his own with 5 innings and no earned runs.

Unfortunately for the Astros there was an unearned run thanks to Julio Lugo's error on a Julio Franco grounder.

Nothing went right for the Astros as Brad Ausmus missed a home run by less than a foot in the 5th inning and in the 8th, Marcus Giles made a diving play to stop an Astros rally. In the 9th with a runner on base, Lance Berkman faced John Smoltz as the winning run. He hit a line drive that Julio Franco turned into a back breaking double play.

The Braves would go on to win the game and sweep the series.

October 7, 2004
BRAVES 4, ASTROS 2 - 11 innings

It was Braves vs. Astros for the fourth time in the Division Series in 2004. The Braves won the previous three match ups. The Astros took game 1 of the 2004 series and looked to bring a 2-0 advantage back to Texas.

Jeff Bagwell and Raul Chavez homered to put Houston up 2-0 with Roy Oswalt on the mound.

But Braves infielder Rafael Furcal had ulterior motives for a Braves comeback. He was arrested for DUI and was sentenced to a short stint in prison. The one catch was his time would start when the Braves were eliminated. So facing the clink, Furcal singled home the first Braves run in the 7th. The Braves tied it off of Brad Lidge (and after there was some controversy over whether or not the bullpen phones at Turner Field worked.)

The Astros blew a scoring chance in the 10th and in the bottom of the 11th, Furcal hit a walk off homer against Dan Miceli to give the Braves life and prolong his own freedom.

October 10, 2004

After a Game 3 win, the Astros seemed poised to win their first ever playoff series and finally beat their tormentors, the Braves. With a 5-2 lead in the 3rd and Roger Clemens on the mound, the clinching seemed inevitable.

But manager Phil Garner inexplicably lifted Clemens after only 5 innings. Reliever Chad Qualls coughed up a game tying homer to Adam LaRoche in the 6th inning and suddenly it turned into a battle of the bullpens.

In the 8th inning, Garner did not double switch when he brought in relief ace Brad Lidge into the game. As a result in the bottom of the 8th in a crucial situation with the go ahead run on third, Garner had to replace Lidge after only 2/3 of an inning with pinch hitter Orlando Palmeiro. He grounded out on a close play at first base that prevented the go ahead runner to score.

Reliever Russ Springer was scored upon giving the Braves the lead. In the bottom of the 9th, the Astros rallied and the tying run on third and the run that could clinch the series at first with only one out and Jeff Kent on the mound. But Smoltz got him to hit into a game ending double play and send the series back to Atlanta.

There the Astros won Game 5 handily for their first ever post season series win. The next year the Astros beat the Braves again, highlighted by the 18 inning marathon and Chris Burke's homer. Houston had finally gotten past Atlanta. But there would be other dragons to slay.

October 20, 2004
CARDINALS 6, ASTROS 4, 12 innings

For the third time in their history, the Astros were in the NLCS. And, as was the 1980 and 1986 series, it was a classic series for the ages.

The home team won each of the first 5 games, including a 3-0 thriller in Game 5 when Jeff Kent ended a scoreless tie with a walk off 3 run jack.

The Astros were one win from the World Series when starter Pete Munro was knocked out of the game in the third inning. Phil Garner had to go to his bullpen much earlier than he wanted and that would come back to haunt the Astros.

The Cardinals took a 4-3 lead into the 9th inning and closer Jason Isringhausen was one out away from sending the series to a 7th game. But Astros slugger Jeff Bagwell got a 2 out RBI single to tie the game at 4.

A double steal by Carlos Beltran and Bagwell put two runners in scoring position for Lance Berkman and a chance to put the Astros ahead going into the bottom of the 9th was 90 feet away. But Lance Berkman struck out.

Now Garner had to bring in his closer Brad Lidge to keep the Cardinals at bay. He responded with a perfect 9th, 10th and 11th. But the Astros, looking to win the pennant with a run and a scoreless bottom of the inning, couldn't get on base. Finally an exhausted Lidge was liften and Dan Miceli came in to pitch the 10th. Pujols walked and with 1 out, Jim Edmonds launched a walk off shot to tie the series up.

The Cardinals would come from behind the next game and clinch the National League Pennant.

October 17, 2005

The Cardinals were heavily favored in the rematch LCS in 2005. The Astros were coming off another hard fought Division Series against Atlanta highlighted by the 18 inning marathon. St. Louis was barely challenged by the Padres.

But Houston surprised all the experts by taking a 3-1 lead including a pair of thrillers in Games 3 and 4.

Houston was ready for a clinching party in Game 5. Andy Pettitte and Chris Carpenter both pitched well as St. Louis took a slim 2-1 lead into the 7th. Lance Berkman hit a three run homer in the 7th inning to give the Astros a 4-2 lead.

In the 9th, Brad Lidge got the first two batters out and Minute Maid Park was going nuts as the pennant clincher was now inevitable. But a single by Eckstein and a walk to Edmonds brought Albert Pujols to the plate.

On an 0-1 count Pujols hit one of the biggest, no doubt about it homers ever seen. Minute Maid Park became a morgue. The Cardinals were now ahead and Lidge was shellshocked as the Cardinals went on to win.

Two days later, the Astros managed to clinch the pennant in St. Louis with Roy Oswalt earning playoff MVP honors. Dan Wheeler, not Brad Lidge, closed out the series.

In many ways, Pujols' home run was like Carlton Fisk's homer in the 1975 World Series. His team wound up losing but the dramatic blast became the single most iconic moment of the 2005 post season.

October 23, 2005

Finally in the World Series, the Astros lost the opener in Chicago. In Game 2, Lance Berkman doubled home a pair of runs in the 5th to give the Astros a 4-2 lead over the White Sox.

The score remained the same until the 7th when Dan Wheeler got two quick outs but then got into trouble. A full count to Jermaine Dye led to a hit by pitch that looked like it missed him to just about everyone who saw the play.

With the bases loaded, Chad Qualls came into the game in relief. His first pitch to Paul Konerko was deposited into the seats for a go ahead grand slam.

In the 9th inning with 2 outs, the Astros rallied highlighted by Jose Vizcaino's pinch hit 2 run single that tied the game with Division Series hero Chris Burke sliding under A. J. Pierzynski's tag.

Brad Lidge made his first appearance since the Albert Pujols homer in the 9th, getting Juan Uribe to fly out in the rain. Then he faced Scott Podsednik, who hit a grand total of 1 home run in 2005. (His lone homer was in the Division Series against the Red Sox. He had no regular season homers.)

It's one thing to let up a homer to a Hall of Fame slugger like Pujols. But Podsednik, whose regular season home run total I matched, is a different story. He launched one into center field and everyone on the planet Earth thought "Maybe it is a triple." Somehow he made it over the wall.

Lidge's woes continued and the White Sox were up 2-0.

October 25, 2005
WHITE SOX 7, ASTROS 5 - 14 innings

For a team with a single pennant in their history, the Astros sure have had their share of extra inning post season games. And Game 3 of the 2005 World Series was as heart breaking as any game in their history.

For the first time ever, Houston hosted a World Series game and it looked like it was going to be a momentum shifter when they gave NLCS MVP Roy Oswalt a 4-0 lead. But the White Sox erupted for 5 runs in the 5th, highlighted by A. J. Pierzynski's 2 out 2 run double.

But the Astros responded with 2 outs and nobody on in the 8th and Jason Lane doubled off of Dustin Hermanson to tie the game. The go ahead run was on third when Brad Ausmus struck out to end the threat.

In the bottom of the 9th against ancient Orlando Hernandez, the Astros had the winning run on third base with one out. Eventually they loaded the bases and Morgan Ensberg came up with a chance to win it. He struck out, sending it to extra innings.

Two Houston runners were left on base in the 10th and 11th. A lead off walk was squandered in the 13th. 23 batters came to the plate, all with the ability to end the game with one swing of the bat.

With 2 outs in the 14th, Ezequiel Astacio let up a solo homer to White Sox reserve infielder Geoff Blum. The homer rattled Astacio who lost all control, loading the bases and walking seldom used reserve catcher Chris Widger to force in an insurance run.

In the bottom of the 14th, a walk and an error brought the winning run to the plate for the Astros. But Mark Buehrle came out of the bullpen for a rare save and the White Sox were up 3-0.

October 26, 2005
A day after the 14 inning marathon, the Astros hoped to do what the Red Sox did just a year before and come back from an 0-3 hole. And it would be Brandon Backe being the unlikely leader of a come back (e).

He pitched 7 brilliant shutout innings, letting up 5 hits, striking out 7 and walking none. Freddy Garcia of the White Sox matched him inning for inning. The Astros had runners in scoring position in the 1st and 2nd and loaded the bases in the 6th.

They couldn't score.

Brad Lidge came into the scoreless game in the 8th and allowed reserve infielder Willie Harris to single. With two outs, Series MVP Jermaine Dye singled home Harris.

The Astros got two runners on against Cliff Politte in the 8th, but Neal Cotts got out of the jam. In the 9th inning, Bobby Jenks let up a lead off hit to Jason Lane. With one out and Lane on second Chris Burke hit a foul ball that Juan Uribe leaped into the stands to catch. Orlando Palmeiro came up representing the winning run but grounded out on a bang bang play at first.

The White Sox won the World Series, holding the Astros to 1 run in their final 19 innings.

Wow... that's a lot of heart break. Walk off homers from unlikely sources. Great pitching chances squandered. The winning run stranded on base. Runners being picked off. Odd bullpen decisions. 8 extra inning losses.

A bounce here in 1980, a carom there in 1986, an extra hop in 1999, a pop up in 2004 or a run driven in in 2005 and who knows? The Astros might have a few World Series banners flying.

A team like the Marlins have two World Series titles where they seemed to get every single break.

But the Astros?
They have the most underrated angst in all of baseball.

It might not be as LONG as Cubs or Indians suffering... but there is a lot of pain in those orange unis!
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  1. Dang... as a lifelong Astros fan, reading this made me even more sad than watching Toy Story 3 this afternoon. At least the toys get a bittersweet ending.

    Still, great post.

  2. You should have shown the pitcure of Jose Cruz crying in the dugout after the 1986 NLCS Game 6.

    Someone wrote a book about that game called "The Greatest Game Ever Played"

  3. James B Cameron7:16 PM

    The Astros are in the same boat as the Texans and Rockets they are from Houston there are not alot of fans outside of Houston and none from the east coast i was not born in houton but i grew up there i have been a fan of the Astros since I was 10 and will stay one until the day I die when the Astros finaly win the series it will be an increadable feeling

    James B Cameron
    Albuquerque NM

  4. I watched every one of those games you wrote about, even after moving here to Oregon in the mid 80s I was able to watch every regular season game on HSN via satellite. The day Mike Scott won the pennant with his no-hitter in '86 was one of the happiest days of my life. And "the greatest game ever played" was one of the most exhilarating, and agonizing things I ever lived through. The heartbreak of Astro fans is indeed underestimated by the average baseball fan. But I've also been lucky to have seen our team produce some of the most thrilling baseball ever played, when the stakes were high. There is nothing like being captivated by those moments, and they are permanently etched in the memory...
    I'm excited for this season, to see what the young guys can do... it should be fun.

    Phil Kindschuh
    Oregon coast

  5. Anonymous2:02 PM

    Thanks for the painful memories. I suffered through each of them and wondered why the baseball gods once again wanted it for the other team. Suffering close loses is part and parcel for Astros fans. If you cannot take the heat you better get out of the kitchen and jump on the band wagon of some high dollar buy that ring team. As an Astro fan you must be tough and resilient.

    Certainly each memory you dragged out sadden me until I remembered what it is to be an Astros fan. As an Astros fan you must understand that in order to win you must place yourself in the position to lose. We are not afraid to be place in that position to lose. We want to be there. We know it is far better to be there than then not at all. That defeatism or playing out the season is unacceptable. All we demand is that we are continuously placed in the position to win.

    Many other organizations have never been run as well as the Stros. Too often putting together teams without hope and continuously waiting for next year. Their fans start every season talking about how they are going to fail. Astros fans talk about what is going to be needed to overcome the other teams and we expect somehow, some way to challenge each year. Even in the pass year where prospects are thin we remember how well the team did last year, post Oswalt and Berkman leaving. They have given us hope yet we practically discuss and understand what needed of this year’s team, not some team made up of fantasy trades and acquisitions. With our feet on the ground we are practical about the probabilities yet we are Astros and we expect our teams to compete not matter the odds.

    One last thing. Over the last few decades Astros fans have rarely felt the pain of being out of contention in final two weeks of the seasons and even less being out of contention in September. Go Stors!!!

    John LaGroue
    Edmond, OK

  6. Anonymous5:23 PM

    This article brought back some tearful memories. I thought nothing would be worse than Game 5 of the 1980 NLCS, only since I attended the game at the beginning as an overexcited 13-year old teenager and left a crying little boy. That was until it was announced that the Houston Astros would be in the American League West in 2013. Oh well, now that I live in the New England Area, I will be to see my Astros in person more in 2013. Thanks again for the article, eventhough it hurt to read, just as it was hard to look at those awful Blue jerseys of the late 1990's.
    Diehard Astros Fan

  7. Anonymous1:41 PM

    I guess the word for the concept would be along the lines of auto-schadenfreude. That is where you derive pleasure from looking back on the agony you have endured. I really don't think any fandom can hold a candle to this list. Especially when it has not be leavened with so much as a single solitary World Series game victory in more than half a century. And then to have franchise history defiled by an ignominious relocation to the outback of the AL West: Yes indeed fellow Astros fans - WE are the longest suffering fans in the history of baseball - the fact that we will never be acknowledged for that is yet another twist of the knife to cause all the more suffering. We would not want it any other way. Anon - LMS

    1. Anonymous1:43 PM

      ETA - posted on 6/16/2012

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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