One day, three glorious victories for the Aggies, Frogs and Astros

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.

We snapped this selfie just as the Aggies’ victory ended. (Photo by Frank Christlieb)

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.

The Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band never loses a halftime, but there was no halftime competition on this day. (Photo by Frank Christlieb)

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.

Aggies 49, Bulldogs 30
Horned Frogs 37, Longhorns 27
Astros 8, Nationals 1

Can you say win-win-win?

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.

Thanks in large part to three turnovers, the Aggies had little trouble beating Mississippi State on Saturday at Kyle Field, ending a three-year losing streak against the Bulldogs. (Photo by Frank Christlieb)

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.

More Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band greatness. (Photo by Frank Christlieb)

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.

The Aggie Band forms its famous Block T, marching back toward the north end zone before running off the field.

Backs against the wall, which Astros will we see for Game 3 of the World Series?

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!!

So the Astros are in the World Series. Sometimes, you just care so much about a team.

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.

From a 1971 Astros program I dug up at home, Doug Rader and Jimmy Wynn in the good ol’ days.

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.

My mouth is wide open in astonishment at these concessions prices from 1971. But I guess back then, they probably seemed expensive … right?

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.

General admission for a buck-fifty and box seats for $4? Oh, for a time machine to take me back to the Dome 48 years ago!

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.

If the Astros’ players were my childhood idols and heroes, these guys were, too. I listened to their voices every night on the radio, whether on my parents’ stereo console in the den or on a transistor shoved against my ear in bed. I tried never to miss a game if I could help it.

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.

GO ASTROS!!! #TakeItBack

What a cool place Astroworld was! And to see all these years later that it cost only $3.95 for kids and $4.95 for adults makes my head spin — kinda like the “Barrel of Fun,” the centrifugal force ride where you stuck to the sides while the floor dropped down. Everyone remember that one?

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

Astros vs. Rays ALDS Game 5: This is what it’s all about

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.

The Astros’ Gerrit Cole, who hasn’t lost a game since May, shut down the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 2 of the ALDS. Let’s hope he can do the same in Game 5. (Photo by Frank Christlieb, high above the field in Section 421)

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.

My close friend Gerald Gummelt and I, who met 40 years ago this fall when we lived in the same dorm at Texas A&M, have been Astros fans for life. We were camped out with his son Russell in right field during batting practice before Game 2 at Minute Maid Park — Gerald with the glove he’s had since high school — but no long balls came our way. (Photo by Russell Gummelt)

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.

I sat with dear college friend Denise Sechelski Bertelsen and her friend Kennedy Colombo, both of whom drove in from Austin for the game, in the tip-top row of Section 421, obstructed view and all (we couldn’t see the big scoreboard through the girders).
(Photo by Frank Christlieb)

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!!!

With the playoffs finally here, picking Astros’ best of all time

If you’ve got a favorite pro baseball team — one you’ve been a fan of most of your life like I have the Astros, or even one whose bandwagon you hopped on along the way — it’s a pretty sure bet you’ve also got your own team of all-timers from that franchise. They might be guys considered among the best ever to play for that team, or they could just be personal favorites who’d make your list but probably miss the cut on most others’ ballots.

I’ve never compiled my own list of the players I rate as the Astros’ best, but now that they’ve won 100 games for a third straight year, it seems like a pretty good time to do it. I started out planning to pick a top 10, but that turned out to be almost impossible. That’s how I ended up with a list of 17, plus three honorable mentions.

Most of these guys predate the current crop, going as far back as the ’60s to players like Larry Dierker and Joe Morgan, who were with the franchise almost from the beginning of its 58-season history. In fact, I’ve included only one player from the current era — Jose Altuve, for obvious reasons. In a few years, some of today’s stars will undoubtedly push a few of the Astros of yesteryear aside. Some of these picks are written in permanent ink, though — again, it’s pretty plain why.

So here’s my list. If you disagree with any of ’em, let me know. If you think I’ve left anyone off, please feel free to cast your own vote, too.

**Note: The cards pictured are all from my collection, which includes some from my childhood, others from among hundreds that my late father bought at a garage sale about 12 years ago and mailed to me. And, several are among those that my good friend Gary Stratton, a former colleague at The Dallas Morning News, graciously gave me a couple of years ago from the extensive card collection he has compiled over many years. Thank you, Gary!!

Best of the best (in no particular order, with the exception of the first two)

Craig Biggio, 2B: When this catcher out of Seton Hall made his first appearance in the majors at age 22 in 1988, I liked him right off the bat. But I never envisioned he’d be the first career Astro elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame. Management’s decision to move Biggio from behind the plate to second base in 1992 not only saved his knees and his speed, it turned him into a seven-time All-Star, a four-time Gold Glover and a consistent table-setter from the leadoff spot, where he hit an NL-record 53 home runs to lead off a game. His offensive prowess, combined with his franchise longevity, allowed him to set Astros career marks for games, at-bats, hits, runs scored, doubles, total bases and extra-base hits, and he’s second in RBI, walks and steals. No other player in baseball history has 3,000 hits (Biggio finished with 3,060), 600 doubles, 400 steals and 250 homers. For Biggio and his fellow Killer B’s — Bagwell and Berkman — I wish they’d been able to win a World Series together. But No. 7 stands alone at the top of the charts.

Jeff Bagwell, 1B: One hundred years ago this December, the Boston Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. On Aug. 30, 1990, the Red Sox traded their top prospect, this hot-hitting third baseman, to the Astros for reliever Larry Andersen for a bullpen boost in their push toward the playoffs. (Boston fans rank these the two worst trades in sports history. Of course they would.) The Bosox made the playoffs on the last day of the season, lost in the ALCS, then lost Andersen to free agency. In Bagwell, who would move to first base upon his arrival, the Astros got a 15-year franchise cornerstone, a four-time All-Star who would use his unorthodox crouch to hit over .300 six times, crush 449 home runs, drive in 1,529 runs and help his team get to the playoffs six times. Oh, and he’s in Cooperstown along with his best friend. Some criticize Bagwell and Biggio for their lackluster playoff showings. But their careers were more than Hall-worthy, and I’ll argue that with anyone. 

Jose Cruz, OF: The Astros have had many popular players over their 58 seasons, but none more than this hustling, sweet-swinging Puerto Rican. Every time Cheo came to the plate or got a big hit between 1975 and 1987, the Astrodome reverberated with the sounds of “Cruuuuuuuuuuz!” The two-time All-Star was a member of the Astros’ first three playoff teams (1980, ’81 and ’86) and hit a blistering .400 against the Phillies in the 1980 NLCS. An even more remarkable show of Cruz’s unbreakable Astros ties: He was also a coach for six playoff teams (1997-99, 2001, 2004-05), and an assistant to the GM for the postseason runs in 2015 and 2017. Incredibly, Cruz still holds the Astros’ record for career triples (80) and walk-off home runs (6). A model of consistency from the left side of the plate, he topped .300 six times and hit .292 overall in his 13 seasons in Houston, in addition to hitting 138 homers in the pitcher-friendly Dome.

Nolan Ryan, RHP: It was no coincidence that the year the best pitcher in the history of the game joined the Astros, in 1980, they finally tasted division-winning, playoff-clinching champagne. His superhuman right arm helped guide them to the postseason again in 1981 and ’86, but the World Series remained out of reach. Ryan threw his fifth no-hitter in ’81 and won the league ERA title that year at 1.69. I’ll never forget his unbelievable 1987 season, when — at age 40 — he led the majors with a 2.76 ERA and 270 strikeouts but finished with an 8-16 record because the Astros gave him such paltry run support. In a PR disaster some fans never forgave owner John McMullen for, Ryan didn’t re-sign with the Astros after a contract dispute, instead joining the Texas Rangers before the ’89 season at age 42. But he gave Houston nine great years, 106 wins, a 3.13 ERA and 1,866 of his never-to-be-touched 5,714 career K’s. And before we move on to the next guy, I gotta throw this out: Most know Ryan holds the record with 12 one-hitters, tied with Bob Feller. But did you know he also has the most two-hitters (18) and three-hitters (31)? Infinitely mind-blowing.

Lance Berkman, OF/1B: Drafted after playing his college ball at Rice University in Houston, Berkman cemented his name in Astros lore with his dependable bat and left-handed power that deposited many a pitch into the short porch in left field at Minute Maid Park. Not the least of those opposite-fielders was his eighth-inning grand slam that helped rally the Astros from a 6-1 deficit in one of the most thrilling playoff games in MLB history, an 18-inning, 7-6 victory over the Braves in the 2005 NLDS — ended by Chris Burke’s blast to those same Crawford Boxes to win it after almost six hours (and I was there!!). Berkman, who hit an unbelievable .385 for his college career, hit .296 in his 12 seasons as an Astro and wound up with 366 career homers (including his years with the Cardinals, Rangers and Yankees). Although I wish he’d won a championship with the Astros, it was great to see him get there with the Cards in 2011 — and play such a vital role — even though it came against the Rangers, a team I’d become a fan of living in the D-FW area for over 30 years (that fandom ended when the Astros moved to the AL). It was a classy move by the club to let Berkman and pitcher Roy Oswalt sign one-day contracts to retire as Astros in 2014.

Jose Altuve, 2B: In nine seasons — including the three straight 100-loss years when the team was painfully rebuilding into the winner it is now — all he’s done is make six All-Star teams and win three AL batting titles, one league MVP and five Silver Sluggers. As an all-fields-hitting, lightning-fast defensive whiz who’s no taller than a chest of drawers, Altuve’s been a spark like no other, the energy constant that’s made the Astros go since joining the team in 2011. He’s had over 200 hits four times in his career, and his current total of 1,568 puts him ahead of the pace all-time leader Pete Rose set on his way to 4,256 by the time he finally retired at 45 (Altuve’s 29). Sure, he’s a free swinger and can look pretty silly reaching for sliders a foot outside. But when he makes contact with those pitcher’s pitches and sends ’em to the opposite field for hits, no one’s arguing with his approach. He can be streaky, and I’ll be the first to admit getting down on him when he doesn’t come through in key RISP moments. Most unbelievable about Altuve’s production is the power he generates from his alleged 5-6 frame. He’s hit a career-best 31 of his 128 home runs this season, and they’re not all pull shots. It’s no fluke he’s on this list.

Roy Oswalt, RHP: As the rotation’s ace most of his 10 years in Houston, this tough, cool-headed performer with the Mississippi drawl had an incredible run starting in 2001. He helped lead the Astros to the playoffs in his rookie year, compiling a 14-3 record with a masterful 2.73 ERA and finishing fifth in Cy Young voting. I mean, Oswalt was always nails. If the Astros were slumping and needed a stopper, he stepped up. He averaged a nifty 7.4 strikeouts per nine as an Astro, but he also pitched to contact and let his defense take care of the rest. Roy O went 143-82 in Houston with a 3.24 ERA, winning 20 games twice — in 2004 and ’05, when the team advanced to the NLCS and its first World Series. His biggest moment came that year, when he pitched the Astros into the Series by coming up huge in Game 6 in St. Louis — after Albert Pujols’ three-run tape-measure shot off closer Brad Lidge kept them from closing out the series in Houston. Glad I got to see him pitch a couple of times, including once when the Astros played the Rangers in Arlington in one of his last years in Houston. Ironically, Oswalt ended up spending 2012, his next-to-last season, with the Rangers.

Larry Dierker, RHP: As a kid listening to Gene Elston and Loel Passe broadcast Astros games on radio, I fell in love not only with them, but with many of the players. Rarely (never?) were they on TV, and only a handful of times each year did we see them in person when we attended games at the Astrodome. But Dierk was one of those guys I grew up admiring, for his longevity, his consistency and his downright likability. In later years, as he became a broadcaster for the team, then a manager, my respect only grew. How can you not love a guy who made his major-league debut on his 18th birthday in 1964 — and struck out Willie Mays in the first inning? Dierker laid a foundation for the Astros’ starting rotation until 1976 — the year he pitched his only no-hitter, against the Expos, prompting a headline in the Houston Chronicle to proclaim “Long-suffering Dierker pitches no-hitter.” You might look at his record as a Colt .45/Astro (137-117) and think he was pretty average. But when you consider how pedestrian the team’s offense was most of his career, and see that his ERA in 14 seasons in Houston was a sparkling 3.31, you realize how steadily solid he really was. Mostly because of low run support, Dierker won 20 games only once — in 1969, when he became the franchise’s first 20-game winner. He’s easily one of the greats.

J.R. Richard, RHP: The giant who stood 6-foot-8, fearlessly stared down hitters, then threw 100-mph heat that often ended up at the backstop — he led the NL in wild pitches three times, including a record six in one game — was forced to retire just when the world was about to get a chance to see his greatness in the playoffs. During the 1980 season, when he was only 30 and the Astros would finally get to the postseason, Richard suffered a stroke before a game that July. All he’d done to that point was lead the NL in strikeouts twice, ERA once, fewest hits per game three times, and win 18 games three times. Before Randy Johnson, Richard was the most imposing figure most NL hitters had ever seen on the mound. Until Gerrit Cole broke it this year, Richard held the Astros’ season record for strikeouts with 313, set in 1979. He tried to make a comeback, spending several years in the minors, but never had the same dominance. Richard later went through hardship that included two divorces and homelessness, but he’s now a minister and doing great. 

Mike Scott, RHP: Scott came to the Astros in 1983, a below-average pitcher who’d gone 14-27 in four seasons with the Mets. There was no reason to think he’d blossom into anything special. He showed flashes his first year, going 10-6, then slipped to 5-11 in ’84. A season later, Scott transformed into an ace after learning the split-finger fastball from pitching coach Roger Craig. That year, he went 18-8 with a 3.29 ERA, but the Astros finished 12 games behind the Dodgers in the NL West. In 1986, Scott’s split finger became even more devastating, not only carrying the Astros to the division title — remarkably, he clinched the crown with a no-hitter against the Giants at the Astrodome, the defining moment of Scott’s career. He went on to dominate the Mets in the NLCS, winning Games 1 and 4, but the Astros would fall short in six games. If only it had gotten to Game 7, where Scott was waiting on short rest. Scott’s brilliance that year — 18-10 record, 2.22 ERA, 306 strikeouts — earned him the Cy Young.

Jimmy Wynn, OF: One of the franchise’s original star-power players, Wynn played in Houston from 1963 to ’73. Generously listed at 5-10, 160, he was nicknamed the Toy Cannon for a reason, hitting 223 of his 291 career homers during his years in the Bayou City. He hit a career-high 37 in 1967, when he also had 107 RBI and was an All-Star, and topped 30 homers two other times — including when he was traded to the Dodgers in ’74 and was named Comeback Player of the Year after hitting 32 homers with 108 RBI. And who remembers the monumental blasts by Wynn and Doug Rader, the first hit into the Dome’s gold upper-deck seats? Every time we attended a game after April 1970, I looked high above left field for the Toy Cannon and Red Rooster seats, painted to commemorate the shots hit that month by Wynn and Rader. In my first job as a sports writer in Odessa in 1983, I had the chance to meet Wynn at a charity golf event in Midland, interview him and write a column. Good times.

Cesar Cedeño, CF/1B: The first Astros player touted as a five-tool potential superstar, the free agent from the Dominican made his debut with the team at age 19 in 1970. He quickly became a fan favorite after hitting .310 that year, then hit .320 in ’72 and ’73, prompting Astros manager Leo Durocher to compare Cedeño to Willie Mays at that age. Cedeño went on to win five Gold Gloves in center field, stole 50 or more bases six times, and was voted to four All-Star teams, but would hit .300 just once more — in 1980, when the Astros made the playoffs for the first time. Cedeño was a great player, but most folks say he never lived up to the greatness projected for him. Count me as being on the fringes of that group, but I’m not willing to say he was a bust. The expectations were set too high, especially when you start putting a guy in the same conversation as a legend like Mays — and when said guy, at age 21, beats out Roberto Clemente to start an All-Star Game. All in all, though, a solid career and an all-time great Astro.

Billy Wagner, LHP/closer: As tough and nasty a relief pitcher as has ever put on an Astros uniform, Wagner spent nine seasons in Houston — long enough to record a franchise-best 225 saves, 694 strikeouts, an amazing 12.4 K/9 ratio and a 2.53 ERA. He was a seven-time All-Star — four of those *after* he left the Astros — and went on to finish his career with 422 saves over 16 seasons. Simply put, Wagner is the best left-handed reliever in the history of the game. And we wouldn’t be saying that if, when he was 7 years old, the natural right-hander hadn’t broken his arm playing football, then broken it again, prompting him to decide to start throwing baseballs left-handed. Hmm, Billy’s only 42. Wonder if he’d be willing to come out of retirement?

Joe Morgan, 2B: Although the native Texan achieved most of his greatness after being traded from the Astros to the Reds in late 1971, he makes this list hands down. (After all, he did come back to town to help the Astros earn their first playoff berth in 1980.) “Little Joe,” he of the signature arm-flapping motion at the plate, played in Houston for nine seasons starting in 1963, becoming a rock at second base. But desperate for power, the team traded him, infielder Denis Menke and two teammates to the Reds for Lee May and two other players, and Morgan went on to win two World Series rings and an MVP in Cincinnati. Some might question my including Morgan because his contributions to the Houston franchise were fairly minimal (and manager Harry Walker reportedly thought he was a troublemaker) compared to what he did for the Reds. And a lot of folks didn’t care for him as a broadcaster, although I didn’t have a problem with him there. But Morgan did make an impact during his years in Houston, and there’s no questioning his overall contributions to baseball.

Yes, that’s an autographed Terry Puhl card, which my dear wife Kay bought for me a few years ago, all because she knew he was my favorite Astros player ever.

Terry Puhl, OF: Before you do a double-take, let me offer up that this Canadian-born outfielder, who fits perfectly into the good-guy mold this franchise has always had, makes the list because he’s at the top of my ranking of favorite Astros players. So, case closed. TP always went about the game quietly and like a pro, and he was revered and respected both in the clubhouse and in the stands. My affinity for the team’s longtime leadoff man and left fielder started in July 1977, when I was 16 and Dad and I were sitting in left at the Dome as Puhl, called up that day at age 21, entered as a defensive replacement against the Dodgers. The next night, he got his first major league hit in the 13th inning and scored the winning run on a Bob Watson double. Fourteen Astros seasons later, he’d amassed 1,357 hits, a .281 average and three seasons of .301 or better — including that rookie year. For years, Puhl’s offensive show against the Phillies in the 1980 NLCS — 10 hits in 19 at-bats for a .526 average (and he didn’t even start Game 1) — stood untouched as the best in series history. Take a well-deserved bow, TP.

Joe Niekro, RHP: An average pitcher whose contract the Astros picked up from the Braves for $35,000 turned into one of the club’s biggest bargains ever. Thanks to his perfection of the knuckleball — which brother Phil fluttered past hitters on his way to the Hall of Fame — Joe became a workhorse in the Houston rotation. He pitched over 200 innings eight times in a nine-year stretch from 1978 to ’85, including a career-high 270 in 1982, when he threw a personal-best 16 of his 107 career complete games. Niekro had back-to-back 20-win seasons in 1979 and ’80, and by the time he’d pitched 11 years in the Dome before being traded to the Yankees in 1985, he’d piled up 144 wins for the Astros, still a franchise best. He wound up with 221 in his career, and combined with Phil’s 318, the pair’s 539 victories made them the top-winning brother duo in history. Sadly, Joe died of a brain aneurysm in 2006 when he was just 61.

Bob Watson, 1B: “The Bull” spent 14 long years in Houston, never getting the chance to be on a playoff team but coming close a couple of times. What a strong leader and dependable lineup anchor he was all those years, blasting 139 dingers and driving in 782 runs in the Dome while consistently hitting for a high average. Watson, who went on to play for the Red Sox, Yankees and Braves, put up a .297 average as an Astro, including three seasons of .312 or above. He made the All-Star team in 1973 and ’75, and had the distinction of scoring baseball’s millionth run in May ’75 on a three-run homer by Milt May at Candlestick Park. (The feat won him $10,000 and a million Tootsie Rolls.) Watson went on to be general manager of the Astros and Yankees before a long tenure in the MLB front office. In recent years, Watson has suffered kidney disease and has turned down offers of transplants from his two children. Hang in there, Bull.

Honorable mention

Glenn Davis, 1B: Power-hitting mainstay of the Astros’ teams from 1984 to 1990, especially the 1986 outfit that pushed the eventual champion Mets to the limit in the NLCS. The two-time All-Star hit 166 bombs as an Astro with a high of 34 in 1989, putting up a monster year with 31 homers and 101 RBI in helping guide the Astros to the NL West title in ’86. Davis finished second in the NL MVP voting that year.

Dave Smith, RHP/closer: The junk-throwing righty saved 199 games (second in team history) for the Astros between 1980 and 1990 during a time when the use of closers on a regular basis was still evolving. From my faulty memory, he became the first pitcher the Astros used on a regular basis to finish out games. Smith’s highest save total (33) came during the ’86 NLCS season, and he made All-Star teams that year and in 1990. Smith died of a heart attack at age 53 in 1990.

Doug Rader, 3B: The Red Rooster gets mention here for his nine seasons of leadership as an Astro and for his stellar defense at the hot corner that earned him five Gold Gloves from 1970 to 1974. At the plate, Rader never hit for average and was strikeout-prone, but he had pop, hitting 128 home runs in the cavernous Dome and driving in 600. He had four seasons of 83 or more RBI, proving he came through in the clutch more often than not.

Astros playoff baseball: Is there anything better?

Baseball’s postseason has arrived, and there’s just no better time of year for a true-blue sports nut. With all due respect to college football and its debate-charged playoff setup, and the NFL and those diehard (crazy?) fans who make it such a huge draw throughout the fall and winter months, October’s where it’s at for purists like me and so many others who have more of a passion for America’s pastime than any other sport.

If you’re like me, you’ve been following your baseball teams for the past 162 games and six months, whether online through GameDay (like I most often do), the ESPN app, MLB Network, radio stations, Sirius, DirecTV — or wherever you can track down their games. I get in the car after work at The Dallas Morning News, usually at 8:30 p.m. or later, and the first thing I do is tune the radio to 790 AM (I don’t have Sirius) — a Houston station. All static, of course.

On the 40-minute commute, I adjust the volume up, down, up, down while straining to barely pick up intermittent bits and pieces of broadcasts of the team I’ve dearly loved since early childhood: the Houston Astros. I also often pull up GameDay on my cell and monitor while I’m driving. (Not the safest move, especially at night.) Being a lifelong, unflappable fan, I’ve done some pretty crazy things to keep up with my team, no matter where I am, what I’m doing, or what other commitments I have that may be much more important.

Or are they?

If you’re like me, you have a loving spouse who, after the All-Star break, signed up for Fubo TV so you could finally watch your team’s games. Although I often get home in time to catch only the later innings, I feel lucky we’ve gotten to see the Astros’ games these past few weeks as they’ve rolled to a team-record 107 wins and a third straight American League West title.

So here we are, days from opening the AL Division Series against either the Tampa Bay Rays or the Oakland Athletics — whichever wins the wild-card game Wednesday night at Oakland. This’ll be the Astros’ 13th venture into the postseason, where they’ve lost 11 of the 19 series they’ve played, compiling a 39-49 record. After losing their first seven playoff series between 1980 and 2001, they’ve now won eight of their past 12.

Coincidentally, the Astros — who were the Colt .45s their first three years as a franchise — and I are both in our 58th seasons. They didn’t play .500 ball until I was 8 years old in 1969, didn’t make the playoffs until I was a sophomore at Texas A&M in 1980, and didn’t win a postseason series until I was 43 in 2004.

That. Was. A. Long. Time. To. Wait.

Now that they’re here again, a streak we fans hope they’ll stay on for, oh, ever, I’m really excited. Stoked. And really nervous. Worried. But that’s nothing new for me.

The Minute Maid Park scoreboard looked awesome at the end of Game 3 of the 2015 ALDS between the Astros and Royals. That victory gave the Astros a 2-1 series lead, but alas, they’d lose the next two, sending Kansas City on its way to a World Series title. It was the second Astros playoff game I’d ever attended.

I know the Astros are loaded in every area. Statistically, they’re a juggernaut. They’re not without weakness (baserunning? RISP droughts?), but they’ve got everything they need to win another World Series to go with the one from two years ago. I’m not taking anything for granted, though, because I know how crazy this game is and how anything can happen. Can you say Bill Buckner?

Last year’s Jose Altuve home run in Game 4 against the Red Sox that wasn’t, but really was, is a prime example. Think about how that affected the outcome of Boston’s eventual 8-6 win. Who went on to win the series — and the WS? And if there were a listing for “crazy things that happen in baseball” in the sport’s almanac, you’d find Cubs fan Steve Bartman and the fate his team suffered in the 2003 NLCS, due in no small part to his role, near the top of the list. 

Just because a team wins the most games in the regular season doesn’t mean it’s assured of winning anything. Not even the first round. Just ask the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who won 116 games, which only the 1906 Cubs have ever duplicated. Did Seattle win the World Series? Nope. Didn’t even get there. Lost to the Yankees in the ALCS, and then the Yanks fell to the Diamondbacks in a true Fall Classic, courtesy of former Astro Luis Gonzalez’s walk-off RBI bloop in Game 7.

I’m confident about the Astros’ chances to #TakeItBack. I really am. I mean, why shouldn’t they be able to win it all? They’ve got the two best starting pitchers, the most formidable offense (and the hardest to strike out), one of the top bullpens, and a solid defense that backs up its pitchers with stellar fielding at every position.

Let’s just say I’m realistic enough to know every team that makes it this far deserves to be here, and it’s not a given that the best team in the regular season will go all the way.

I’ve had this jersey since the late ’80s, when it was what the Astros were wearing. It sat in the closet for years, mostly because it got just a wee bit snug.

What I do know is that the Astros are laser-focused on this goal and have been all season — really, ever since they were knocked out short of the World Series by the Red Sox last year. Sure, we know about all the talent — Springer, Altuve, Bregman, Gurriel, Reddick, Brantley, Correa, Verlander, Cole and the rest. The numbers and performance of the past three seasons have been phenomenal. And it doesn’t hurt that they’ve got a hell of a manager in A.J. Hinch, uber-supportive of his players and a field boss whom, from all indications, his guys love.

But to me, one of the most impressive aspects of this team is its ability to bond with one another. The on-and-off-the-field chemistry, the way they pick each other up, the fun they have and the unwavering support they show serves as another strength, an intangible that seems to give the Astros an extra edge. Baseball teams are always tight-knit, but there’s something about this group’s bond that’s a difference-maker when things get down to the nitty-gritty like they so often do in this sport.

My longtime Texas A&M friend and former roomie Gerald Gummelt, who’s been lucky enough to have Astros partial season tickets in recent years, and I were at Astros-Red Sox ALDS Game 1 in 2017. We didn’t sit together, but I have him to thank for getting us our tickets!

And all I know is that for the fourth time in my life, I’ll be attending an Astros playoff game. I’ll be at the “Juice Box,” as folks down in Houston call it, for Saturday night’s Game 2 of the ALDS, sitting high up in Section 421 with Denise Sechelski Bertelsen, a friend I haven’t seen since we worked together in spring 1982 for one semester on the staff of The Battalion, Texas A&M’s student newspaper, before she transferred to that other school in Austin. She’s invited another friend and they’ll be making the trek separately to join up with me at the ballpark. I’ll also be seeing my dear Aggie friend and fellow Astros fan Gerald Gummelt, a native West Texan and longtime Houstonian who has partial season tickets and is always there for playoff games.

Here’s the guy I DID sit with at Astros-Red Sox ALDS Game 1 in 2017 — David Crouchet, a friend from my graduating class at Conroe High. We go all the way back to our days at Washington Junior High!

I’ll be hitting the road from Arlington at 5 a.m. to make Saturday’s alumni breakfast at my alma mater, Conroe High, which will be honoring our football coach from our 1970s glory days, W.T. Stapler, as students from Class of ’79 are in town for their 40th reunion. We’d been guessing the ballgame would be in the afternoon but found out Monday that it’ll be an 8:07 p.m. start, so I’m looking at a looooong Saturday. Luckily, Gerald has invited me to sleep over so I won’t have to drive back that night.

I’m planning a couple more Astros blog posts this week — one on my picks for the team’s top players of all time, another on its top playoff games — so be on the lookout for those.

In the meantime, if you’re a fan of the Astros, I hope you’re ready for some great playoff baseball. It’s time to get serious. I’m not really into predictions — probably because I don’t want to look stupid when they don’t pan out — so you won’t get one from me here. Heck, we don’t even know who the Astros are playing yet.

But I know it’ll be a competitive series, whether it’s Tampa Bay or Oakland. The Astros have dispatched their division series foes in three and four games the past two years, but my gut tells me it’ll go the full five this time.

So there’s your prediction. Sort of.

Time to #TakeItBack.