Houston was eager to experience October baseball for many years after its establishment in 1962, yet only had two winning seasons during their first 14 years as a franchise. When Bill Virdon took over late in 1975 as manager and quickly achieved parity within months, by 1979, they chased the Cincinnati Reds to the final weekend before going one better and winning NL West the next season! But their 1980 victory caused tremendous emotional upheavals the Astros battled the Reds and Dodgers in a tense race that would end up needing a game 163 to decide it all.
Houston found success in 1980 through pitching. The vast Astrodome required that run prevention rather than run scoring be the priority, and the Astros led the National League in ERA. Joe Niekro led all starters with 20 wins while floating his knuckleball across 256 innings; Ken Forsch did not fare as well with a 12-13 record but still posted a 3.20 ERA; Vern Ruhle completed only 159 innings but won 12 games while posting 2.37 ERAs.
Before the season, the Astros made a critical free-agent addition in fire-baller Nolan Ryan. While his 11-10 record may indicate a lack of run support, he still posted an impressive 3.35 ERA over 233 innings played for them.
Virdon had an outstanding relief corps at his disposal. Joe Sambito and Dave Smith provided timely relief at the end of games; Frank Lacorte proved helpful as a middle reliever, while Joaquin Andujar proved versatility with 14 starts under his belt while relieving in 21 more with an overall 3.91 ERA.
An offense that ranked seventh in the National League needed just enough firepower to keep pace. Terry Puhl led with 13 home runs while also posting an impressive.357 on-base percentage; Cesar Cedeno also stood out, posting an OBP/Slugging percentage combination that made his 48 steals count the most of any player on his team; Jose Cruz posted a.360 OBP while Art Howe, future manager, managed a.350 average.
Houston’s success, as shown by these numbers, was its ability to draw walks, and none more so than a veteran free agent acquisition, Joe Morgan from Cincinnati. Although only hitting 243, Morgan would draw 93 walks for an OBP.367; ironically enough, as an ESPN analyst later in his career, he would become one of the harshest critics of Moneyball statistical evaluations that would have vindicated him back then.
But overshadowing all this was J.R. Richard’s story as their No. 1 starter heading into 1980. Richard quickly established himself as one of baseball’s premier pitchers, going 10-4 in 17 starts while posting an incredible 1.90 earned run average throughout 1980 – all hallmarks of Cy Young Award winnerdom!
At the end of July, Richard experienced numbness in both hands, prompting him to be placed on the disabled list. Still participating in some pregame warmups on July 30, Richard collapsed due to a stroke – though thankfully surviving, his major league career abruptly ended.
Tragic on every level–humanitarian most significantly; Richard would go through two divorces and eventually end up destitute; on an individual level, an impressive career that could have quickly earned a spot in Cooperstown was suddenly gone.
Thanks to Richard, Houston maintained their position atop the National League West for much of the early summer. They started moderately at 21-18, trailing Los Angeles Dodgers by three 1/2 games while Cincinnati was also in contention; then went on a 19-5 tear from late May through early June that pushed them ahead before going 5-10 before All-Star break – ultimately reaching midway point tied for first with both Dodgers and Reds.
Without Richard, Houston lost seven out of ten games in August before turning things around with ten straight victories to end it on Labor Day and finish out ahead of the Dodgers and Reds in their respective races.
Los Angeles started to gain ground during the first week of September, taking an unexpected two-game lead into their two-game series at Houston. Houston took control in game one when they scored twice in the seventh to break a 3-3 tie; game two saw another tie at 3-3 going into extra innings, where both teams scored twice before Cruz homered for Houston and restored parity.
With just under two weeks left in the regular season, Houston was ahead of Cincinnati by one game; they would face each other twice more before concluding their schedule against Los Angeles at home for an end-of-season finale that could make or break Houston’s chances of making its inaugural postseason appearance.
Ruhle pitched against Cincinnati veteran and future Hall-of-Famer Tom Seaver in a pitchers duel and won by pitching a complete-game four-hitter that earned a 2-0 score. On Saturday, Niekro and Smith combined on another four-hitter which led them to lead 5-4 before Andujar was hit to salvage one game for Cincinnati; unfortunately for them though, Houston quickly finished off Atlanta by taking their series sweep 3-0, and their chances had vanished for good.
Houston had expanded their lead over the Dodgers by three games with its sweep, securing themselves in first. Houston would have four chances to clinch in LA; no one anticipated using all four chances and falling short each time. No one knew if or how often Houston would come so close before being forced backwards by other teams.
Houston was in striking distance on Friday night, as Forsch outdueled veteran Dodger Don Sutton to lead 2-1 until an error by Morgan allowed for a game-tying run before Los Angeles secured victory with an epic homer by Joe Ferguson later that same inning. On Saturday, Ryan lost another tough 2-1 pitchers’ duel; Houstonians felt even tighter collars.
On Sunday afternoon, the Astros held a 3-0 lead after four innings but trailed by one run entering the eighth inning when Howe committed an error, and Dodger third baseman Ron Cey hit his homer – forcing a Monday playoff.
Houston was fortunate enough to have Niekro as an option on reserve, while Los Angeles used every available pitcher – from former Minnesota Twins ace Dave Goltz down. Manager Tommy Lasorda made do with Dave Goltz who wasn’t as effective due to shoulder problems and fatigue.
The Dodger defense could not afford mistakes and made two early errors that allowed Houston to gain a 2-0 lead after one inning, relieving some pressure. Howe hit a two-out, two-run homer to increase Houston’s advantage to four runs; Howe finished with three hits and four RBIs en route to his five RBI total, leading 7-1 after four. Niekro remained locked in for the remainder of this contest as Houston finally secured victory.
Houston met the Philadelphia Phillies in an incredible National League Championship Series that became one of the most remarkable postseason series ever played. Houston came within six outs of clinching on two consecutive days but couldn’t quite close the deal; nevertheless, Houston often recovered from lost leads, making this series all the more enthralling; however, Philadelphia ultimately prevailed as this then-best-of-five series went the distance.
The Astros never reached the World Series with this group of players, although they made another postseason appearance the following year when baseball implemented Division Series as an interim measure during a players’ strike that interrupted midseason action. But their run of success ended there in 1986 when they again fell short against New York Mets in an exciting NLCS contest.
Houstonians finally witnessed a pennant celebration in 2005; their long-awaited World Series title arrived ten years later (2017, after Houston had transitioned to the American League), Houston celebrated.
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