I’ve had a few days to “get over” (not really) the disappointment of the Astros’ gutting loss to the Nationals in the World Series. That was a kick to the um, yeah, for this lifelong fan and so many others like me. Not to say winning the championship was a given, but when you get there, and you’ve taken a 3-2 series lead with three wins on the road, and you’re going home — where you went 60-21 in the regular season — and you need to win one out of two, you almost expect it to happen.
In Game 7, the Astros took a 2-0 lead into the seventh inning that, on most nights, might seem uncomfortable. But it felt safe, despite Houston’s numerous wasted scoring chances, because the Astros were riding a masterful pitching performance by Zack Greinke. He’d kept the Nats off-balance from the start and looked capable of getting at least through the eighth.
But after a home run and a walk, manager A.J. Hinch decided to turn to ever-reliable reliever Will Harris, who hadn’t given up a run all postseason until Anthony Rendon took him deep in Game 6. Two pitches after Greinke’s exit, Howie Kendrick reached for a pitch he shouldn’t have been able to do much with and drilled it off the right-field foul pole for a 3-2 lead, the Nats’ first of the game.
Although the Astros’ bats had nine outs left, Washington’s second homer-fired comeback in two nights had sapped the energy — and a good chunk of the hope, it felt like — from Minute Maid Park. Both nights, when those two fateful innings transpired, I was driving from work in downtown Dallas toward home in southwest Arlington, expletives flying inside my car after balls flew out of the ballpark.
As the Nats tacked on three more runs in the eighth and ninth in Game 7, the Astros were unable to string together any hint of a rally, and their season crashed to an end that seemed both unfair and unfitting. But the Nationals, who were clearly the better team in this series, deserve all the plaudits they’re getting for knocking off one of baseball’s top teams, if not its best.
Many will say the Astros’ season was a failure because they didn’t win a second championship in three years. That it’s inexcusable for a team to go home without the Commissioner’s Trophy when it won more than any other, won 100-plus games for a third year in a row, had the top pitching combo in baseball in Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, led the majors in several offensive categories and will go down as one of the most prolific in history.
They’ll say the whole season is a loss, and that the Astros choked.
But those folks just don’t get it. They don’t get how tough it is to win a championship in any sport, especially in baseball, where the grind of nine months including spring training, 162 games and a full month of the playoffs — if a team’s lucky enough to survive all the way to the World Series — is more grueling than any other.
What’s more, they don’t understand how, in baseball — and especially in the baseball playoffs — every decision, every made play and misplay, every umpire’s ball-and-strike call is magnified tenfold. How winning and losing can be measured by a ball being hit like a laser directly into a fielder’s glove, caught in a highlight-reel play rather than finding a gap and going to the wall, or falling just outside the foul line.
The Astros felt the sting of that “game of inches” reality time after time against the Nationals. If the Astros had won, the Nats could’ve said the same.
It would’ve hurt to see the Astros not make the playoffs at all, which they’ve done many, many more times than not in my 50-plus years of dedication to the team. Getting knocked out in the first round or in the ALCS would’ve been tough, too.
But as all baseball fans know, losing in the seventh game of the World Series is by far the most painful way to go, because you came that close. That DAMN close.
I’ll admit I get frustrated when the Astros don’t play up to the high standards they’ve set by performing at elite levels in recent years. Not even the best — the Ruths, the Gehrigs, the Aarons, the Trouts, the Ripkens — can do that game in, game out for 162 plus the playoffs.
I’ll also ’fess up that I’m one of those wishing Greinke had been given the chance to finish the seventh inning, and that the Astros had been able to come through with more clutch hits against the Nationals, something they struggled to do throughout the playoffs after a season of timely hitting.
But they advanced farther than 28 other teams and gave their city and fans something to cheer about for the better part of 2019, and that’s incredibly special. What’s more, with the exception of Cole, their core will remain mostly intact for 2020 and their farm system is pretty well-stocked. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to keep contending for the foreseeable future.
I wanted to share this post by Julia Morales, the Astros’ sideline reporter for AT&T SportsNet. She noted all the negativity on her Twitter, Facebook and Instagram from those who seem to know more about how to manage a team than A.J. Hinch and would rather spend time rattling off all the reasons the Astros didn’t win rather than reveling in a great season. I thought her post was cool and right on.
Also, noting that Julia’s interviewing Jose Altuve in her photo, today’s a great day for me because of something that arrived via FedEx: After the Astros knocked off the Yankees to win the ALCS, thanks to Jose’s walkoff homer — and after much haranguing by my wife, Kay — I finally decided to order my first *authentic* Astros jersey in almost 30 years. I got on mlbshop.com and ordered an Altuve WS jersey, and she ordered a (much cheaper) Astros shirt, too. I’ve gotta let out an Aggie whoop for that!!
Thanks for the awesome season, Astros! Let’s win it all in 2020!
I created this collage last year for a Twitter contest where AT&T SportsNet was looking for the ultimate Astros fan in North Texas. I put out several tweets boasting of my lifelong fandom, with supporting evidence, but never heard a word. Obviously there are other North Texans who were either much more creative than me (easily done) or have a stronger emotional bond to the Astros (impossible).
So, I’m dragging it off my hard drive today for good luck as the Astros, who couldn’t seal the deal in a drama-filled Game 6 last night, now face the game all ballplayers dream of: Game 7 of the World Series. You’d think they wouldn’t want the intense pressure that comes with knowing every at-bat, every pitch, every fielding decision and play they make could mean the difference between winning and losing their team a title.
Take Justin Verlander, the Astros’ starting pitcher last night and future Hall of Famer. He suffered the loss and, if his team falls short tonight, he’ll spend the offseason blaming himself for failing to win a WS game — something he still has yet to do in his illustrious career. But JV gave up only three runs in Game 6 and isn’t the reason the Astros lost.
They lost because, after crashing through for two first-inning runs off the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg, they couldn’t solve him again all night — save for when they wasted a second-and-third, one-out scoring shot that could’ve put them back ahead in the fifth after the Nats shocked the home crowd with solo blasts by Adam Eaton and Juan Soto off Verlander for their first lead.
Game 6 had drama galore — the post-home run bat-carrying-to-first-base antics of Alex Bregman and Soto, the crazy baseline interference call at first in the seventh, the resulting ejection of understandably infuriated Nats manager Dave Martinez. It’s not the first time in the series he’s been irate with the umpiring crew, and he’s had legitimate beefs.
So here we are, baseball fans. After 162 regular-season games and a month of playoff ball, we’ve arrived at this:
⚾ NL wild-card winner, the team with baseball’s best record since late May, vs. the team with the best overall record and winner of 100-plus games three straight years.
⚾ 35-year-old, three-time Cy Young winner and seven-time All-Star Max Scherzer, nursing a sore neck, vs. 36-year-old, one-time Cy Young winner and six-time All-Star Zack Greinke, nursing a tendency to get himself into — and often out of — postseason trouble.
⚾ Two teams that haven’t figured out how to win at home in this series, a trend that’s already made history across all major sports. If that carries tonight, the District of Columbia will have an MLB champ for the first time since the Senators won it all in 1924. But this Astros team won 60 games at Minute Maid Park in the regular season — more than anyone else in the majors. Not one of those 60 wins matters if they can’t win this one.
For the Astros to win tonight, they’ll have to get to Scherzer early. They’ll have to hope his neck issues cause him to make a few mistakes and they’ll have to be ready and capitalize. They can’t waste scoring opportunities. And Greinke will have to pitch the game of his life. Remember late in the season when he took a no-hitter into the ninth? Maybe not on that level, but he’s got to be really, really solid.
They can do this. I always talk about the Astros in “we” terms. So, we can do this. This team is too good, too proud, too focused on the #TakeItBack mantra it’s carried all season to let it get away now.
I understand the Nationals are a great team with winning chemistry, and they’ve been on an incredible roll for months. Their postseason run has been one of the greatest ever.
But this is the Astros’ championship to take. At home, in front of their fans, for the first time in the franchise’s 58 years. And I believe they’ll do this.
When Kay and I left Arlington at 7 Saturday morning for an 11 a.m. kickoff at Kyle Field, we were excited about getting to spend the day together at a Texas A&M football game — something we’d done only twice in the past 20 years (1999, 2017). Even though she’s a Horned Frog and we’d had TCU season tickets in 2015 and ’16, I’m always saying we should just pick a TCU game (cheaper) instead of going to an Aggie game (way more expensive). That’s why we rarely go to A&M games.
But she’s always saying no, we should go to a TAMU game, bless her heart. And when we have gone, she’s swayed right along with me and the rest of Kyle Field to the Aggie War Hymn. Bless her heart again. And she’s kissed me every time the Aggies have scored a touchdown, just like Ags do. Really bless her heart for that.
Early in the season, we picked out Saturday’s matchup with Mississippi State — the same opponent we saw the Aggies lose to two years ago, 35-14 — and I asked for the day off at the newspaper. As game day got closer and I hadn’t bought tickets yet, we got lucky and scored the unused upper-deck north end zone season tickets of dear friend and former DMN colleague Frank Smith, Class of ’87, who was going to be out of town and wouldn’t be using his. (Thank you, Frank!)
A&M’s had no luck against the Bulldogs in recent years, losing three in a row. Plus, the Ags — with the toughest schedule in the land — came in already having lost three games, to two No. 1-ranked teams, Clemson and Alabama, and the team ranked No. 8 at the time, Auburn.
So it had to come as a surprise to most of the 102,000-plus in attendance when the Aggies built leads of 28-7, 42-17 and 49-24 on their way to a no-sweat 49-30 win, one of their most impressive over an SEC opponent in recent years.
But for Kay and me, the Ags’ game was only one of three that mattered big-time to us Saturday. Her Horned Frogs also hosted No. 15 Texas that afternoon, and my Astros (actually, they became “our Astros” early in our 25-year marriage) played the Nationals in Game 4 of the World Series that night.
We talked before Saturday and on the way to College Station about how awful it would be if our teams went 0-for-3. I thought the Aggies had a good chance of winning, but neither of us were confident about TCU, which had shown flashes of both greatness and not-so-greatness so far. And I just wasn’t sure about the Astros, who had taken Game 3 the previous night to cut their series deficit to 2-1.
To be blunt, and not to sound like we don’t have faith in our teams (we’re pessimists by nature), we didn’t expect to go to bed Saturday night reveling in three wins by the only three teams we really care about.
Luckily, Kay and I were able to listen to the second half of the TCU-Texas game on the drive home. Kay dozed off after the Frogs took a 10-point lead on a field goal early in the fourth quarter. Somewhere between Hillsboro and Fort Worth, she opened her eyes enough for me to tell her the ’Horns had just scored to cut the lead to three with just under seven minutes left, and at that point, rather than Fear the Frog, I feared her Frogs were going to choke away the game.
But as we drove into south Fort Worth, just miles south of where the action was taking place at Amon Carter Stadium, Kay and I celebrated when freshman quarterback Max Duggan calmly led TCU on a 75-yard drive and took it in himself from 11 yards out to bump the Frogs’ lead back to 10 with 1:59 to play. We celebrated victory when a fourth interception of the ’Horns’ Sam Ehlinger wrapped up TCU’s fifth victory in the past six years over UT, and sixth out of eight under coach Gary Patterson.
After picking up dinner for the kids, we got home after the Astros had already taken a 2-0 lead over the Nats in the first inning, an early sign of great things to come. On the strength of rookie Jose Urquidy’s masterful five shutout innings, Robinson Chirinos’ two-run blast and Alex Bregman’s grand slam, the Astros pulled away to pull even in a series that had looked, after two games, like a potential Washington sweep.
Can you Aggies yell WHOOP? Can you Horned Frogs yell Riff, Ram, Bah, Zoo, Give ’em Hell, TCU? Can you Astros fans say Attaway, Astros?
For the Christlieb family, at least, it was a great Sports Saturday (that doesn’t include the kids, who don’t care a whit about sports).
And lest you think I’ve forgotten, we did score another win Saturday: The thrill and honor that come with getting to see the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band. There’s no finer group of marching musicians in the land, and their performances fill me with pride and awe. And there’s no better place to sit than in the north end zone, where the band sets up for halftime and comes off after forming its legendary Block T.
No one — definitely not this baseball know-better (notice I did not say know-it-all) — said the following: “Start planning that Astros championship parade!”
No one said the Houston Astros would take out their lumber and bash the Washington Nationals into submission, winning the World Series without a stiff challenge. No one said the Nats would walk up to the plate against Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, shivering in their cleats, and walk back to the dugout, shaking their heads after so many strike threes.
Yes, most “experts” predicted the Astros would prevail over the Nationals, in either five, six or seven games. A few even picked Washington to pull off what many said could never happen.
News flash No. 1: The Houston Astros are human. News flash No. 2: The Washington Nationals are human, too. But they’re playing baseball on some other level, from some other time, some other place. A place where no one cares what you did in the regular season, how many games you’ve won, how much star power you’ve got on your roster or whether you’re the hands-down favorite to win it all.
The Nationals have now won eight straight playoff games. Going back to the end of the regular season, they’ve won 18 of their past 20. Not to get all Halloween, but that’s a run of monstrous proportions. And at this time of year, getting hot, coming together as a team and getting all the breaks means winning championships.
So far, that’s what we’re seeing from the Nationals. So far.
That doesn’t mean the Astros’ season is shot. They’re not out of this. If they don’t win tonight’s Game 3, the odds, and history, pretty much say there’s no coming back.
And if that happens, they’ll have an offseason to wonder if their inability to win the World Series was due to their own failures — an almost total lack of clutch hitting, baserunning blunders, untimely fielding mistakes — or whether they met their doom in a team that, since May, has matched the Astros win for win for win.
If you believe in this sort of thing, and as overused a cliche as it is, the Nationals are looking every bit the part of a team of destiny.
They won in the wild-card round when a ball scooted past the Brewers’ right fielder to score the go-ahead run. They vanquished the Dodgers in the NLDS with late tying homers from young stars Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon off Hall of Famer-in-waiting Clayton Kershaw before capping off the shocker with journeyman Howie Kendrick’s grand slam in extras. They swept past the Cardinals like they were a bunch of minor-leaguers in the NLCS, earning the right to rest and wait as the Astros and Yankees slugged it out for six games.
Clearly, the Astros have the better collection of players and talent. No one would argue that. But games aren’t played on rosters or in scorebooks. They’re played between the lines, and through two games, the Nationals are playing better as a team and are the better team.
There’s no sense rattling off all the numbers as evidence of the Astros’ offensive futility this postseason. They’ve survived and advanced this far because of pitching and the long ball, not because of the offensive consistency that’s been their trademark all year. But if they do fail to come back and make this a series, at least getting it back to Houston, it’ll be their bats’ collapse that will, and should, take the biggest blame.
The team held a players-only meeting after Game 2 careened from a 2-2 pitchers’ duel into a 12-3 debacle of a defeat Wednesday night at Minute Maid Park. There’s no doubt in my mind that among the topics was getting back to playing Houston Astros baseball.
If they can do that starting tonight in Game 3, there’s no reason they can’t turn this series around. If not, their season will definitely be over.
And if that happens, I’ll tip my cap to the better team that won this World Series. It’ll be cool to have a WS champion in our nation’s capital for the first time since 1924, and DC’s first pro baseball champ since the dominant Homestead Grays won the Negro National League title in 1948.
This series has been needlessly overshadowed by the stupidity of one member of Houston’s front office. Assistant GM Brandon Taubman inexplicably decided the postgame celebration of Saturday’s ALCS clincher would be a great time to launch into an inexcusable taunting of female reporters in support of the team’s closer, Roberto Osuna, for whom the Astros — again, inexplicably — traded last year despite his having been suspended 75 games for domestic abuse.
The Astros poured kerosene on that blaze by defending Taubman, then had to issue a public apology and finally did the right thing by firing the guy Thursday, about four days too late. The whole situation, profoundly sad from the hideous crime Osuna committed that started it, could’ve been avoided if the Astros had just shopped elsewhere for a closer. With a team trying to win a title, it — and the well-deserved heat the franchise is finally taking — have been an unfortunate distraction.
As for what’s happening on the field: For now, I’m keeping the faith. GO ASTROS!!
I can’t remember when I didn’t have a deeply emotional connection to the Houston Astros, who started out as the Colt .45s in the spring of 1962, when I was barely a year old. At that point, we’d been living in Houston only a year after having moved from Huntington, West Virginia, where my brother and I had been adopted.
In tribute to the space program, the franchise became the Astros in 1965 when the team moved into its amazing new indoor stadium, the Astrodome, dubbed “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” Luckily, until moving to Conroe in 1971, we lived about 5 miles from the Dome off South Main Street, and we started going to a handful of games each year.
By the time I was 7 in 1968, in third grade after having been bumped into first at age 5 at St. Matthew Lutheran School on the outskirts of downtown, my Astros fandom was in full swing. I became fast friends with Paul Sweitzer and John Reed, and we’d compare notes at school most mornings about the previous night’s game — often losses — that we’d listened to on the radio, feeling like we were sitting right there in the stands, thanks to the stellar play-by-play and color of Gene Elston and Loel Passe. My brother Isaac and I spent years often keeping our own box scores while listening at home, using cardboard from the boxes of Dad’s “samples” from his work as a longtime lingerie salesman for Hollywood Vassarette.
It wasn’t just Isaac and I who dearly loved the Astros and still do, exchanging texts as they make their way through the playoffs and into the World Series for a second time in three years. Our parents, Clark and Olga, did too. At times, all four of us would go to games. Sometimes, it was just us guys.
During my years at Conroe High from 1974 to ’78, when I was able to score two tickets to three games a year for making straight A’s, Dad and I would go together and have a blast. I’ll always remember being with him at a game against the Dodgers in July 1977 when outfielder Terry Puhl was called up from the minors and made his debut. The Canadian would become my favorite all-time Astro.
And then there was Mom. She made no secret of her crush on Larry Dierker, the longtime Astros hurler who became the franchise’s first 20-game winner in 1969. Many know that things were very difficult for our family because of Mom’s drinking and other problems. But she loved the game of baseball, and she loved the Astros. She had a thing for Dierk — and, later, when the team acquired Nolan Ryan, she had the hots for him, too.
All these years later, I’ve got to smile about it, because there weren’t a lot of happy times for us. But remembering how this native of Panama who married a U.S. Navy man came to the United States and grew to love our national pastime, even developing a crush on a couple of players on her/my favorite team, is a special memory for me.
As the Astros get ready to open the World Series tonight against the Nationals, I’m pumped, nervous, unsure what’s going to happen. I’m expecting another ultra-competitive series, just like the Astros have gotten from the Rays and Yankees. And from an opponent that few expected to get here, that rallied late to win the NL wild-card game against the Brewers, that knocked out the favored Dodgers, that swept the Cardinals, who could possibly think the Astros will have it easy? Pitching, as they say, is the great equalizer, and both of these teams bring it.
Not to bash my team, but the Astros have spent these playoffs wasting baserunners and scoring opportunities. They can’t continue doing that and expect pitching and home runs to keep extending their season. Because this is it — there’s no more season to extend. The team whose offense comes through in the most key situations — that’s who’ll win this. Here’s hoping those guys are named Alvarez, Bregman, Springer, Gurriel, Altuve, Correa, Brantley and Reddick.
In closing, let me share what the photos are: Last night, after watching a Captain America movie with our 18-year-old Will, I was showing him some comic books from my childhood that were stashed in a box. Mixed in was a 1971 Astros game program, missing its cover. What a fun journey back to the Astrodome and all the great times my family shared there, and how cool looking at the photos of the guys on that team: Manager Harry “The Hat” Walker. Menke, Morgan, Wynn, Rader, Dierker, Cedeno, Watson, Edwards, Wilson, Billingham, Metzger, Gladding, LeMaster, Alou, Blasingame, Forsch.
And look at those ticket and concessions prices! Box seats $4, general admission $1.50! Beer 55 cents and hot dogs 35 cents. Hamburgers 65 cents! Anyone remember the “Popcorn megaphones”? And love the Astroworld ad — did it really only cost $3.95 for children and $4.95 for adults to get in?
OK, time for a World Series. As always, no predictions here. I do believe in baseball gods, I do believe in baseball gods, I do believe in baseball gods, I do believe in baseball gods. And I sure don’t want to do or say anything to get on their bad side.
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.
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! ****
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. ****
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. ****
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. ****
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. ****
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. ****
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. ****
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? ****
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. ****
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. ****
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.
So it comes down to this Thursday night in Houston, the city and area where I grew up after moving there as a baby with my adoptive family from Huntington, West Virginia:
Astros vs. Rays, American League Division Series Game 5, tied at two games apiece after nothing but wins by the home teams. October baseball at its exhilarating, nerve-wracking, win-or-go-home, emotional roller coaster-riding finest.
Anyone who read my blog post before the playoffs started – even though it was written prior to the wild-card game that determined the Astros’ foe – may remember my saying nothing’s assured for a team that won 107 games, more than any other. That whether they played the A’s or the Rays, the Astros would be pushed to five games.
So here we are, and it hasn’t looked pretty for our team these past two games after they won the first two in the comfortable, at times deafening confines of Minute Maid Park.
We all knew this wouldn’t be easy, right? After all, the Rays won 96 games, only 11 fewer than the Astros. And they did beat the 103-win Yankees seven times, finishing just seven games back of NYY in the AL East.
But speaking as the eternal pessimist I tend to be, I’m actually confident about Thursday. The Astros are back home, where they’ve won 62 games this year. They’ve got Gerrit Cole, 17-0 since late May, ready to take the mound as the playoff stopper his team desperately needs, a la Mike Scott in 1986 and Roy Oswalt in 2005.
They’ve got an overpowering offense that really hasn’t flexed its muscle during this series yet, due in large part to Tampa Bay’s unknown, unsung pitching staff that has, for the most part, shut down the Astros’ bats. It’s the same staff that compiled a 3.65 team ERA during the regular season, a smidge ahead of Houston’s 3.66, and limited opponents to a .230 batting average (trailing the Astros’ .221 and the Dodgers’ .223).
The Astros will be going up against a great young pitcher in Tyler Glasnow, who stands tall in stature and ability. I have no doubt he’ll pitch well. But I also think you’re going to see some guys come through for the home team. Guys who may not have done a whole lot so far.
As I’ve said before, I’m not into predictions, and I’m not necessarily making one here. But I do think the Astros will play one of their best games of the series. What’s more, to advance to the ALCS against the Yankees, they know that’s what they have to do. And they’ve been here before, which counts for a lot.
So let’s go, Astros! To borrow from a phrase we Aggies use in our traditional yells against football opponents … BTHO the Rays!!!