The mid-1980s Houston Astros could be the subject of a good Last Dance-esque documentary.
A sometimes-overlooked era in Houston Astros lore is the pitching heavy teams of the mid-1980s. Behind stellar starting pitchers Mike Scott, Nolan Ryan and Bob Knepper, the 1986 team was agonizingly close to making it to the Fall Classic, losing to the Mets in an epic six-game NLCS.
What led up to the 1986 classic was a series of ups and downs Astros fans have become too familiar with.
The 1984 Astros team wound up a respectable 80-82 behind a three-headed monster staff of Joe Niekro (16-12 and 3.04 ERA), a knuckleballer at the age of 40; Ryan (12-11 / 3.04 ERA), fresh off his fifth no-hitter in 1981 and already cemented as the best in the game; and the left-handed Knepper (15-10 / 3.20 ERA), who would end up having three straight 15-win seasons with the Astros.
1984 proved to be a catalyst for the years to come but didn’t lack for interesting storylines. Infielder Dickie Thon, an All-Star in 1983, was struck in the head with a rising fastball by the New York Mets’ Mike Torrez. The ball shattered the bone above his left eye, giving him blurred vision for a few months, putting him out for the 1984 campaign. Legendary broadcaster Gene Elston was also put on the “disabled list” when he was struck by a vehicle while jogging in Philadelphia.
The offense featured a core unit of Glenn Davis, Kevin Bass, Bill Doran and Jose Cruz. In 1984, Davis made the most of his September call-up and ended up mashing 20 home runs in 100 games in his 1985 rookie campaign.
The Astros celebrated many milestones in 1985, including their 20th year in the Astrodome. Ryan also pitched his 200th complete game and recorded his 4,000th strikeout against former Astro Danny Heep.
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Mike Scott, who had gone 5-11 in 1984, was a hard-throwing pitcher but couldn’t locate his fastball. He went to Roger Craig, a former Astros pitching coach, and developed a split-finger fastball, catapulting him to 18 wins.
The hitting, which had always been a sore spot on Astros teams, had blossomed and the team ended up hitting 121 home runs in 1985, their most since 1973. The pieces of the puzzle were very much being formed into what would be an exciting era in Astros history.
Making a Push
Mired in mediocrity for five years, the Astros needed a shakeup. They hired Hal Lanier as their manager and Dick Wagner, of the Reds “Big Red Machine” lore, as their new general manager.
The major addition of Billy Hatcher from the Cubs gave the team a new speedy outfielder at the top of the order. The new, brash manager gambled with the top of the rotation by sporting a three-man rotation of Scott, Ryan and Knepper to start the 1986 season.
With the Astros in firm control of first place for most of the season, they doubled down and picked up key pieces like Larry Andersen (who would famously be flipped for Jeff Bagwell in 1990) and Danny Darwin, acquired in a trade in August, to solidify the bullpen in front of closer Dave Smith.
Davis would end up whopping 31 home runs and getting named to the NL All-Star team, joining teammates Scott, Smith and Bass, the latter of whom would end up with 20 home runs, 79 RBI and a .311 batting average.
After some ups and downs during the season, the Astros were down to their last 12 games and had the National League West title within their grasp. Jim Deshaies would set a major league record on Sept. 23 against the Dodgers by striking out the first eight batters in the game.
Starting their last homestand of the season, they gave the ball to Scott to clinch the division. He stole all the thunder from the Astros clincher, however, as he was masterful and pitched the team into the playoffs with a no-hitter, one of our top five moments in franchise history. He ended the season with an 18-10 record, a 2.22 ERA, 306 strikeouts and the NL Cy Young award.
Was this the Astros Year?
Coming in as underdogs against the formidable (and eventual champions) New York Mets, the Astros knew they had an uphill climb. As documented in the annals of baseball, the 1986 World Series proved to be an epic showdown. But the 1986 NLCS was a showdown for the ages and, unfortunately for Astros fans, another letdown of epic proportions.
Scott led the way in Game One with another masterful performance, racking up 14 strikeouts en route to a slim 1-0 victory against another ace in Dwight Gooden, whose only mistake was a fifth inning home run by Davis.
After the Mets stole Game Two in deciding fashion 5-1, the Astros took a four-run lead in Game Three in New York. They would eventually cough the game up and lose on a back-breaking walk-off home run by Lenny Dykstra off closer Dave Smith in the ninth inning.
Scott was again sent back to the bump in Game Four and proved his mettle with a 3-1 victory.
Game Five paired Ryan against Gooden in an epic pitching battle. With a 1-0 lead, the Astros almost added to the lead but the chance was taken away by a miscall by the umps, which would prove to be a run they desperately needed. The Mets ended up winning Game Five in the 12th on a walk-off single from Gary Carter.
The Astros were down to their last game and leaned on Knepper to get them to a potential series-deciding Game Seven with Scott on the mound. Knepper was dominant for eight innings and gave the Astros a three-run cushion heading in to the ninth. The Mets would end up closing the gap and tying the game, sending it to extra frames.
In the 14th inning, the Mets would score on an RBI single, but Hatcher smacked a home run in the bottom half of the inning to tie the score again.
The 16th inning saw the Mets score three times but the Astros wouldn’t die easily. They scored two runs and brought Bass to the plate with two runners on. Bass ended up striking out, sending the Mets to the Fall Classic and eventual World Series glory.
The Astros were left to wonder what might have been, through missed calls and opportunities. The 1986 campaign saw them as potential MLB juggernauts, but they fell just short in dramatic fashion.
As in 1980, the Astros went from just missing out on glory to following it with a dud of a season in 1987 and ended up in third place with a 76-86 record. Mainstays Ryan, Cruz, Terry Puhl and Alan Ashby would end up moving on, with Ryan racking up 270 strikeouts and a 2.76 ERA but would only have a record of 8-16.
Knepper would come back to earth with a 5.27 ERA, but the Astros couldn’t push their way over .500 all season amid injuries and setbacks.
This Astros era that was filled with potential and upswing slowly turned, and the short window they had was suddenly closed. The veteran leadership of Ryan left when he was signed by the Texas Rangers and eventual departure of long-time favorite Cruz proved to be the final nail in the coffin of another Astros “almost-had.”
There has been no shortage of behind the scenes stories and the rise and fall of those Astros teams. The fan base has surely taken its lumps throughout the years and will be sure to continue amid the sign-stealing scandal and a fan-less 2020 campaign, if that is to start.
A proud franchise has seen the Hall of Fame careers of Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson donning the famous star in pursuit of MLB glory. The team has seen three World Series teams, three stadiums and a surplus of storylines.
Throughout the years, this fan’s perspective of the Astros will always be that of missed opportunities, disappointing revelations and absolute playoff agony. But this fan will always get behind this team through all of it.