In order of Astronomical significance, Houston baseball’s top playoff games

That was a close one.

The Houston Astros survived the Tampa Bay Rays and their bullpen carousel — barely — in the ALDS to arrive at another date with the New York Yankees in the AL Championship Series. The Rays pushed the 107-win (now 110) Astros to the brink and were no flukes. Given a shot at the Yankees, Dodgers or anyone else in the playoff field, they’d have put up the same fight, and possibly even prevailed. You can bet the Astros are glad *that* series is over. I sure am.

Now that we’ve got a rematch of the 2017 ALCS, which the Astros won in a classic when the home team took all seven games, it’s safe for me to share my list of Houston’s top 10 baseball playoff games of all time. Granted, “all time” in this franchise’s terms — 58 years, compared to the Yankees’ roots dating to 1901 — seems woefully short.

But even though The Bayou City didn’t see playoff baseball until 1980, a playoff series win until 2004 and a World Series until the following year, we Astros fans feel pretty lucky to have a team on the run this one’s on, with three straight 100-win seasons and one world championship … so far.

I took this photo of the scoreboard at Minute Maid Park on Oct. 9, 2005, after the Astros survived a six-hour, 18-inning marathon to outlast the Braves and advance to a second straight NLCS against the Cardinals. They would win that to get to their first World Series. (Photo by Frank Christlieb)

Before jumping into the list, allow me to share my history of attendance at Astros playoff games, which numbers four. My first, attended at Minute Maid Park with longtime Texas A&M friend Gerald Gummelt, his son Russell and daughter Haley, was at the historic, 18-inning National League Division Series game against the Braves in 2005 that lasted 18 innings and 10 minutes short of six hours before the Astros won it 7-6 on Chris Burke’s home run.

My second playoff experience was four years ago, when the Royals came to town for Game 3 and I drove to Houston with friend, Dallas Morning News colleague and KC fan Kevin Lueb (he’s also an Astros fan, but only if they’re not playing the Royals). The Astros won that one for me, too, 4-2, before losing the next two — to the team that would end up winning it all. 

When the Astros broke through and finally won their first World Series two years ago, I was lucky enough to be at MMP again, sitting with Conroe High classmate David Crouchet, for the first of their 11 playoff wins — the first of two straight 8-2 ALDS drubbings of the Red Sox that set the tone. Jose Altuve clubbed three home runs that afternoon — the last while I was in the bathroom, doggone it — and 43,102 of us left with a feeling that our team might be on its way to something more special than we’d ever seen.

My fourth playoff game came last weekend, when the Astros defeated the Rays, 3-1, in Game 2 to take what seemed a safe 2-0 lead. It proved fleeting, as Tampa Bay grabbed control at The Trop in St. Pete, sending the series back to Houston for Thursday’s winner-take-all Game 5.

And, I’m thrilled to say, barring an airplane full of Derek Jeter bobbleheads falling out of the sky and crashing into my car while I’m driving from Arlington to Houston, I’ll be attending Saturday’s Game 1 of Astros-Yankees with Texas A&M friends Bobby Nagel, Beverly Fluke and her husband, Bob. Last week, other friends and I were sitting far above home plate in the top row; this time, we’ll be sitting far down and far above the right-field line. But just being there, getting hoarse with everyone else and seeing an Astros victory is all that matters. 

So, finally, here are those Astros playoff games. In the interest of time, of which I have little today, I won’t be including a ton of game details, but will add links to online videos. Hope you enjoy these travels back to some unforgettable Houston baseball memories!
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1. Nov. 1, 2017: World Series Game 7, Astros 5, Dodgers 1

In Los Angeles, the Astros struck fast against Yu Darvish (still can’t fathom why Dave Roberts started him), scoring all five of their runs in the first two innings to capture their first world championship. George Springer took series MVP honors, rallying from a horrendous start, when he went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts in a Game 1 loss. He finished with eight extra-base hits, including five home runs, none bigger than his two-run shot for a 5-0 lead in the second inning of Game 7. Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr. managed to plunk four batters and give up three hits — yet zero runs — in his two and a third innings before manager A.J. Hinch decided he’d better not take any more chances on blowing this big a lead in this big a game. Charlie Morton’s four innings of closing relief locked down the win, which marked the first time an AL team had won a WS Game 7 on the road since 1972.
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2. Oct. 11, 2004: NLDS Game 5, Astros 12, Braves 3

In Atlanta, the wild-card Astros finally broke through for the first playoff series win in franchise history. Roy Oswalt and five relievers combined to shut down the Braves, but it was the Astros’ offense — getting two home runs from Carlos Beltran and one from Jeff Bagwell, and putting up eight runs in the seventh and eighth innings to seal the deal — that came through huge. The Astros, who’d earned their wild card on the final day of the regular season, went on to lose to the Cardinals in a seven-game NLCS classic.
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3. Oct. 19, 2005: NLCS Game 6, Astros 5, Cardinals 1

In St. Louis, Astros ace Roy Oswalt took the ball and basically said, “We’re not losing this game. That’s it.” That was after a crushing defeat two days earlier in Houston, when Albert Pujols’ monster home run off closer Brad Lidge had kept the Astros from clinching a World Series berth. I’d gone to bed that night despondent, unable to sleep, certain we’d lost the series. Oswalt pitched seven masterful innings, giving up just three hits and a run while striking out six, and Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler closed it out to send the Astros where they’d never gone before. Jason Lane hit a home run, and Craig Biggio, Brad Ausmus and Willy Taveras (who?) had multiple-hit games to help score more than enough runs to back Oswalt, who earned series MVP honors.
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4. Oct. 21, 2017: ALCS Game 7, Astros 4, Yankees 0

What. A. Monumental. Game. In Houston, Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr. combined to silence the mighty Yankees for nine innings, helping the Astros earn their second crack at winning a World Series. Evan Gattis and Jose Altuve went deep for Houston, which became the first team to win pennants in both leagues. McCullers, who entered in the sixth inning, spun an incredible 24 straight curveballs to close out the befuddled Yankees.
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5. Oct. 29, 2017: World Series Game 5, Astros 13, Dodgers 12, 10 innings

If the Astros hadn’t won this critical game at Minute Maid, there might not be a championship banner hanging there today. The must-have victory gave them a 3-2 series lead heading back to LA, where they lost Game 6 before striking gold in Game 7. How a game started by two guys with four Cy Youngs between ’em, Clayton Kershaw and Dallas Keuchel, turned out to be a slugfest is what makes baseball the unpredictably beautiful game it is. I couldn’t possibly go into all the seesaw scoring, but for the Astros to rally from 4-0 and 7-4 deficits against one of the greatest pitchers ever — thanks, Yuli Gurriel and Jose Altuve! — is one of the most impressive feats in franchise history. George Springer’s homer in the seventh, tying the score after his diving attempt at a Cody Bellinger line drive came up short and led to the go-ahead run, was an incredible moment. Every Astros and Dodgers fan in attendance and watching this game on TV rode a constant wave of rolling emotions, making it one of the most memorable World Series games in history.
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By the time the Astros and Braves had played 17 innings in October 2005, it was already the longest playoff game in MLB history. Thankfully, Chris Burke won it for the home team with his line-drive dinger to left field in the bottom of the 18th. (Photo by Frank Christlieb)

6. Oct. 9, 2005: NLDS Game 4, Astros 7, Braves 6, 18 innings

In Houston, little did I know my first Astros playoff game would be so historic. Five hours and 50 minutes after it began at noon, the marathon ended when Chris Burke pulled a pitch by rookie Joey Devine into the Crawford Boxes in left field for the series-clinching win that sent the Astros to the NLCS against the division-rival Cardinals. The Braves took a 4-0 lead in the third when Brandon Backe loaded the bases on walks and Adam LaRoche crushed a grand slam. With the Braves up 6-1 in the eighth, Lance Berkman’s opposite-field slam to left drew the Astros within a run, and Brad Ausmus’ two-out shot eked over the yellow line in left-center, tying the score in the bottom of the ninth. It was the second straight year for the Astros to qualify as a wild card on the last day of the season — this time after starting the year 15-30 and being buried by the Houston Chronicle with a tombstone. They ended up beating the Cards, advancing to their first World Series before falling to the White Sox in an unexpected sweep.
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7. Oct. 15, 1986: NLCS Game 6, Mets 7, Astros 6, 16 innings

The only game on this list that the Astros lost, but a classic nonetheless in the eyes of most baseball observers. As the Astros tried to keep the Mets, up 3-2 in the series, from clinching at the Astrodome, New York rallied in the ninth from a 3-0 deficit off Bob Knepper — who’d pitched a hell of a game — and Dave Smith to send it to extra innings. Then things got *really* fun. The Mets took the lead in the 14th, but Billy Hatcher’s heroic homer off the left-field foul pole tied it in the bottom half. Two innings later, the Mets broke through for three runs and a 7-4 lead, but the Astros came right back with two runs and had two more runners on. The image of what happened next, Jesse Orosco striking out Kevin Bass on a curveball, then hurling his glove high into the air to start the Mets’ celebration, will be on replay in my mind forever. They went on to beat the Red Sox and poor Bill Bucker to win the World Series. But all Astros fans know, if that NLCS had gone to a Game 7, it would’ve had a different outcome. Mike Scott, who won not only series MVP for the losing team but that year’s Cy Young, was waiting to dominate the Mets for a third time. And he would’ve. And then, who knows?
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8. October 18, 2004: NLCS Game 5, Astros 3, Cardinals 0
At Minute Maid, Astros starter Brandon Backe matched Woody Williams zero for zero, giving up just one hit and two walks through eight innings of brilliance. The bottom of the ninth was set up for walk-off drama after Carlos Beltran led off with a base hit against closer Jason Isringhausen and manager Tony La Russa opted to intentionally walk hot-hitting Lance Berkman to get to Jeff Kent. The veteran second baseman launched the first pitch over the railroad tracks in left for a 3-0 victory and a 3-2 series lead, putting the Astros on the brink of their first World Series. They wound up waiting another year to get there, though, after the Cardinals took the next two games in St. Louis.
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9. Oct. 10, 1980: NLCS Game 3, Astros 1, Phillies 0, 11 innings

It was the Astros’ first taste of the playoffs, and I was early in my second year at Texas A&M, intently fixed on a small TV in our dorm, Moore Hall, with fellow fans (I’m quite sure Gerald and Bobby, whom I mentioned earlier, were among them). Back then, there were no division playoff series, and the league championships were best-of-fives. A win on this night would put the Astros one step from the World Series, which seemed too much to expect from their first postseason foray. The Astrodome stuck to its pitcher’s-park stinginess for 11 innings, as Houston knuckleballer Joe Niekro pitched 10 scoreless while his offense failed to cash in on its few scoring chances against Larry Christenson, Dickie Noles and Tug McGraw. Finally, against McGraw in the 11th, Joe Morgan led off with a triple, and after intentional walks to Jose Cruz and pinch-hitter Art Howe, Denny Walling’s sac fly scored pinch-runner Rafael Landestoy with the game’s only run. One more win over the mighty Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski and Larry Bowa would bring the city of Houston another historic first. But the next two games, also played in the Dome, went the Phils’ way in extras. Every game in the series but the first was tied after nine. It’s been almost 40 years, but the 1980 NLCS still ranks as one of the best ever.
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10. Oct. 6, 2015: AL Wild Card Game, Astros 3, Yankees 0
It had been 10 long years since the Astros’ last playoffs — that World Series ride against the White Sox where they were swept. During those years, they’d fallen on the toughest of times, losing future Hall of Famers Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell to retirement, and painfully losing 106, 107 and 111 games in 2011, 2012 and 2013 as the front office took the whole thing apart. When they qualified — once again, on the last day of the season — as a wild card for their first AL playoff berth, with eventual Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel set up to face the Yankees, Astros fans had to feel good about their chances — even on the road. Keuchel coolly pitched around the aura of Yankee Stadium, striking out seven and giving up three hits in six innings, and his bullpen shut down NYY the rest of the way. Homers by Colby Rasmus and Carlos Gomez off Masahiro Tanaka — who’ll be starting Saturday’s Game 1 of the ALCS — sent the Astros into the next round against the Royals, who overcame a 2-1 division series deficit and went on to beat the Mets to win it all.

2 thoughts on “In order of Astronomical significance, Houston baseball’s top playoff games

    1. Hi, Anne! Thank you so much for reading my blog entry! As you can see, I am quite a devoted Astros fan! 🙂 Hope you and Ricky are getting to watch some of the playoff games. They’ve been nerve-wracking so far! I hope they can win the whole thing, but I think it’ll be really tough to get past the Yankees. Fingers crossed. Thanks again. I’m so glad we’ve reconnected the past few years. I love seeing the joy you’re getting from being a grandmother. Take care and give Kolten a hug for me. ❤

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