Team Time Machine: Looking back at the 1998 Houston Astros
The 1998 Houston Astros may have been the best team in franchise history. Let’s take a trip down memory lane.
Let’s take a time machine trip back to 1998.
Both the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal and the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa Home Run Derby dominated the news. Armageddon, Saving Private Ryan, and There’s Something About Mary where the biggest movies at the box office. Seinfeld had its finale, South Park had its first season, and Michael Jordan finished off winning his sixth NBA title.
Everyone was wearing cargo pants. Teenage boys were bleaching their hair and women of all ages wore sandals with like ten straps on it. AOL was popularizing with the kids on those computer devices, and Nokia introduced their first mobile phones that was like carrying a four-pound candy bar. Everyone on the radio was singing along to Shania Twain’s “Still the One I Love”, Third Eye Blind “Semi-Charmed Life”, and yes – Will Smith’s “Gettin Jiggy Wit It”.
The Houston Astros were also getting jiggy with it coming into the 1998 season. Fresh off a playoff exit at the hands of the Atlanta Braves, Houston was determined to come back and push for the World Series this year through the National League.
The Astros opening day lineup was as follows: Craig Biggio, Derek Bell, Jeff Bagwell, Sean Berry, free agent All-Star Moises Alou, Richard Hidalgo, Ricky Gutierrez and Brad Ausmus. The starting rotation consisted of Shane Reynolds, Mike Hampton, upstart Jose Lima, Sean Bergman and Pete Schourek. The bullpen had (potential) future Hall of Fame closer Billy Wagner with relief pitchers Scott Elarton, Doug Henry, CJ Nitkowski, Trevor Miller, Jay Powell and Mike Magnante.
The Astros started off somewhat slow, going 7-8 in the opening 15 games, but then caught fire. Houston proceeded to win 18 of the next 23 (including eight in a row) and went from two games back in the Central to leading by 3.5 games. After another lull in late May, they caught fire again in June by going 15-8 to close out the month up 6.0 games in the division.
They struggled out the gate in July post All-Star break and almost relinquished their division lead to the Cubs. The Astros were close, but they needed another player to get them over the top. So on July 31, Houston traded Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, and John Hamala to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for “The Big Unit” Randy Johnson.
After the Johnson trade, Houston put together one of the best second half runs ever in baseball. The Astros went 37-16 record in August and September (including another eight-game winning streak) to finish the season 102-60, then a franchise record. They won the division by 13 games when it was all said and done. The Astros went 55-26 at home and 10-4 in interleague play – the Astrodome was buzzing!
The Astros offense was just absurd that season. Jeff Bagwell batted .304 with 34 home runs and 111 RBI (OPS .980). At leadoff, Craig Biggio hit .325 with 20 dingers, 88 RBI with a .908 OPS. Derek Bell hit 22 homers and 108 RBIs while hitting .314 for a nifty .855 OPS. But the star of that season truly was Moises Alou, who had his best season as a pro, hitting .312 with 38 homers and 124 RBI with a .981 OPS. Alou finished a quiet 3rd in MVP voting that year, behind Sosa and McGwire. (Biggio finished 5th!)
The starting staff also was uncanny good. Shane Reynolds went 19-8 (3.50 ERA) and generated some Cy Young buzz during the time of Greg Maddox and Tom Glavine. Jose Lima became a bonafide ace-level starter with a 16-8 record (3.70 ERA), and steady-eddy Mike Hampton went 11-7 with 3.36 ERA.
But the real story was Randy Johnson, who upon arriving to Houston went on an absurd 10-1 run in the second half of the season with a 1.28 ERA. During this run, Johnson threw four shutouts and had seven double-digit strikeout games, including a 16-strikeout shutout against Pittsburgh, a 14-strikeout shutout against the Reds and a 13-strikeout shutout against the Brewers. He also single-handedly beat the juggernaut Braves in Turner Field with 10 strikeouts and one earned run in an 8-inning gem. What he did in that 11-game span may be the most underrated run of pitching ever.
This 1998 Astros team was one of only 32 teams in the history of baseball to have 4 players post a 5.0 WAR or above (Bagwell, Biggio, Alou, Bell). They had an all-time offense now with a great rotation and the best pitcher in the world at the moment. The Yankees may have won 114 games that year and the Braves were amazing with 106 wins, but the Astros were every bit as good as those teams. They had a rotation that could finally match the Maddox-Glavine-Smoltz three-headed monster, and a lineup that could do damage just like the Yankees.
In the NLDS, Astros battled San Diego Padres, who came into the postseason red-hot. Randy Johnson and Kevin Brown duked it out in Game 1 and the game was scoreless through 5 innings. Johnson then gives up a run on a sacrifice fly and a solo homer in the 8th and the Astros lost. No answer for Kevin Brown, who struck out 16 Astros and gave up only two measly hits.
Astros won Game 2 and head back to San Diego at 1-1, where Astros lost a heartbreaker in Game 3. Mike Hampton throws a gem but, with the game tied 1-1 in the seventh inning, Scott Elarton gives up a solo bomb to Jim Leyritz and that’s the difference.
In Game 4, the wheels completely fell off. Sterling Hitchcock tossed 11 strikeouts and gave up only three hits in six innings for San Diego, but Randy Johnson kept the game close. The Astros go into the eighth Inning down 2-1. The Astros got nothing with their bats in the top, then Tony Gwynn hit a one-out double off Doug Henry in the bottom of the 8th. Dierker then brought in Jay Powell, who gave up a two-RBI triple to John Vanderwol to make it 4-1 Padres. Next batter — Wally Joyner knocked it out the park. 6-1. Series over.
The juggernaut Astros lineup who scored at will all season get only eight runs in four games. Bagwell, Biggio, Bell and Alou combined to go 9-57 in the series with three RBI and 21 strikeouts.
The team never got a chance at redemption. Randy Johnson signed with Arizona in the offseason and then Moises Alou missed the entire 1999 season with injury.
Biggest What If
NLDS Game 3 – Momentum was on the Padres side the entire series, but there were chances to swing it back at Qualcomm. In the top of the 7th inning, Biggio drew a two-out, bases-loaded walk to tie the game off Kevin Brown. Then Billy Spiers comes to the plate to face Padres pitcher Dan Miceli with a chance to blow the game open and finally get Houston a lead… and he goes down swinging in three pitches.
If Spiers found a way to get on base (or if Larry Dierker considered a better matchup), Houston could have taken a commanding lead late in Game 3 with peak-Billy Wagner waiting to close it out. Assuming Houston would have won Game 3, they would have had Johnson ready to close it out in Game 4 and Shane Reynolds ready for Game 5 if needed. But instead, Jim Leyritz and Wally Joyner rip our hearts out.
The story of the season was the offense went quiet when it mattered the most, a stigma that stuck with Bagwell and Biggio for the 90s. They were the Stockton and Malone of baseball – great Hall of Fame players that seemed to underachieve in the playoffs. Thankfully, both Bagwell and Biggio dispelled some of that by making it to the World Series in 2005.
Although it did end with an abrupt dud, the 1998 Astros put together an amazing season for fans that had the Astrodome rocking all summer long.