As the calendar turns over to 2012, it’s always nice to remember the bright moments from the Astros’ past. While new fans may find it hard to believe, the Astros days of old are filled with great memories and tremendous accomplishments that are entrenched in baseball history. Many Astros’ fans can look back to the offseason of 2003/2004 as the moment the franchise reached its peak. Not trying to ignore the wonderful runs in 1980, 1986 and 1998 but the Astros finally won their first playoff series that season and setup what would be a fantastic sprint to the their first World Series a year later. A foundation was being formed and energized the fan base to unseen limits while creating baseball history.
It all began on a sour note as Billy Wagner was dealt to Philadelphia after criticizing owner Drayton McLane. While the trade was said to be part of a plan to open up money to acquire a new starting pitcher, most believed his harsh comments made Wagner a clear target. With Octavio Dotel and a dynamic rookie reliever ready to take up the slack, the Astros felt fine about the deal. The question turned into, which veteran starter would Gerry Hunsicker go after with the newly found money? At the same time, free agent pitcher Andy Pettitte was having contract issues with the Yankees so very quickly speculation grew about a possible homecoming for the Deer Park native. Soon speculation would become reality and the Houston Astros would have their starter to pair with young aces Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller. Andy Pettitte would sign with Houston and electrify the city but it would only be the beginning of a wild season.
With the Astros already having one of the better front three starters in the NL and still hopeful that Tim Redding could emerge as a quality starter, it appeared the ‘Stros were closed for business. So when news begun to surface that the recently retired Roger Clemens had been in constant communication with Pettitte, it created quite the buzz. Could the Astros seriously pull off the biggest 1-2 acquisitions in club history. As intrigued as the Astros seemed to be in the proposition, Clemens and Pettitte seemed equally interested to join their hometown team. It would indeed happen and Clemens would sign for a small contract, to give it one last shot at another title. The Astros now had one of the best starting four in the game with an already strong offensive unit which quickly made them co-favorites in the Central with Chicago and the Cardinals
As the season unfolded, the Astros appeared strong early but injuries to Wade Miller and Andy Pettitte were crushing blows and a once dynamic starting four would be cut in half. The offense would be inconsistent for most of the 1st half of the season which lead to one of the bigger trades in club history. Much like the Randy Johnson deal in 1998, the Stros would come out of essentially nowhere to grab MLB’s prize trade asset in Carlos Beltran. The Astros had to give up their top prospect, John Buck, and closer Dotel to make it happen but it also allowed Brad Lidge to become the dominant force we all remember. The Astros now had one of the best lineups in the game and still the best 1-2 starting pitchers along with a shut down closer but something was still missing for this group.
The Astros were stumbling along at a very mediocre pace and behind the wild card leaders by 6.5 games by mid-August. I won’t claim to know what about or if it even had an effect on the group but on a Sunday afternoon in Montreal the Astros staged an improbable two out rally behind Jeff Kent. It appeared to trigger one of the greatest runs to the finish line that baseball had seen in a very long time. The Astros would finish the season 36-10 and overtake the Giants for the wildcard and setup another playoff matchup with the hated Braves.
After four tough playoff games, the ‘Stros would finally feel the taste of victory in a playoff series as they would wipe out the Braves behind a red hot Carlos Beltran. A huge monkey would be lifted from the shoulders of Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and the rest of the Astros franchise. It would now setup a historic seven game NLCS with the Cardinals that would see a number of dramatic moments. After Jeff Kent hit a walk off home run in game 5 that would only be rivaled by Billy Hatcher’s 14th inning blast in 1986, the Astros would be one win away from their first World Series. However, thanks primarily to Jim Edmonds the Cardinals would prevail in a classic seven game series.
While the Astros fell one game short of the NL pennant, they showed incredible heart and did what no other Astros team had done before. It would set the stage for another wild 2005 season, even with massive personnel losses and some welcomed additions the Astros would get back to St Louis to finish the job. We will leave that story for another day because this is about the 2004 Astros and their remarkable journey.
Topics: 2004 NLCS, Andy Pettitte, Atlanta Braves, Bill Wagner, Brad Lidge, Craig Biggio, Drayton McLane, Gerry Hunsicker, Houston Astros, Jeff Bagwell, Jim Edmonds, Octavio Dotel, Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt, St. Louis Cardinals, Wade Miller