The 2004 Houston Astros were a rollercoaster ride.
Let’s take a time machine trip back to the year 2004.
Lance Armstrong winning his sixth consecutive Tour de France, the NBA’s “Malice in the Palace” brawl and George Bush defeating John Kerry in the election were the biggest news stories that year. Shrek 2, Spiderman 2, and Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban were biggest movies at the box office. Other notable movies from that year were Mean Girls, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and the highly quotable Anchorman (and yes, Dorothy Mantooth is still a saint). People at home were watching either American Idol, Desperate Housewives or the final episode of Friends.
Women were wearing Juicy Couture track suits, or they were dressed up in micro miniskirts with incredibly small handbags to impersonate Paris Hilton. Guys wore Sean John or Abercrombie & Fitch, coupled with flannel shirts, trucker hats and endless amounts of Livestrong bracelets. That year Skype was starting to gain popularity and Mark Zuckerberg started this small little company called Facebook.
Everyone owned a white iPod that weighed 6 pounds, and you were jealous when you found out one of your friends had a flip phone with a 1-megapixel camera. And people who turned on the radio were jamming out to “Yeah” by Usher, “This Love” by Maroon 5, “I Like The Way You Move” by Outkast, “The Reason” by Hoobastank and everyone’s favorite – “Slow Motion” by Juvenile.
The 2004 Houston Astros came into the season with expectations for a deep postseason run. After years of coming up short and with the core of Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Jeff Kent all in their late-30s, the front office had to make some big moves to get over the hump.
They did, shocking the baseball world by signing future Hall of Famers Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. The city of Houston was quaking with excitement and Vegas had the Astros as the National League frontrunner to make the World Series and face the American League favorite New York Yankees.
It is hard to argue against those World Series favorite odds, considering how much talent was on the Astros’ roster. The Opening Day lineup was seven-time All Star Craig Biggio, Adam Everett, 1994 MVP Jeff Bagwell, 2000 MVP Jeff Kent, Richard Hidalgo, Lance Berkman, Morgan Ensberg and Brad Ausmus. The starting rotation consisted of Roy Oswalt, four-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens, 20-game winner and World Champion Andy Pettitte, Wade Miller and Tim Redding.
The Astros bullpen was now headed by a new closer Brad Lidge, with Octavio Dotel, Dan Miceli, Brandon Backe, Chad Harville, Mike Gallo and Chad Qualls.
The Astros started out the season going 11-9, then went on a dominant run winning 10 of 12 to take a three-game division lead in May (21-11). During that time, Roger Clemens went 7-0 and posted an absurd 1.72 ERA. No one had ever seen a pitcher at his age pitch with such dominance since maybe Nolan Ryan.
Everything was going well and then the team just stumbled. The Astros 15 of their next 20 from mid-May to mid-June and went from a pretty comfortable division lead to 3 1/2 games out. The offense stopped hitting, injuries to Andy Pettitte and Wade Miller killed the rotation, and fans were not happy with what Houston was producing on the field.
The front office tried everything to jumpstart this team. On June 17, they traded the disgruntled Richard Hidalgo to the New York Mets for Jeremy Griffiths and David Weathers (welp). One week later, the Astros traded Octavio Dotel to the Oakland Athletics in a three-team trade that landed them Carlos Beltran from the Kansas City Royals.
Despite Beltran’s immediate help with the offense, things continued to sputter. The Astros lost seven of their final 11 going into the All-Star break and fell 10 1/2 games out of first place. Things were so bad with this underachieving super-team that they fired manager Jimmy Williams at the break. The front office hired longtime manager (and apparent Sam Elliott impersonator) Phil Gardner to try to salvage a thus far disastrous 2004 campaign.
Initially, Gardner’s presence was anything but an uplift. The Astros continue to struggle throughout July and into August. On Aug. 14, the Astros were 56-60 and a whopping 20 games out of 1st place. Promises of a deep postseason run were quickly fading.
Then, just like that, they turned it around on the road. After getting a win against the Montreal Expos, Houston swept a three-game road series against the Phillies, which got them back to .500 and the team seemed to have discover their swagger.
The Astros went on to have one of the best closing runs in NL history. From Aug. 15 to the end of the season, the Astros went 35-10, which included a 12-game win streak and a seven-game win streak to close out the season. During that time, Roy Oswalt won 12 of his last 16 starts, and Cy Young front-runner Roger Clemens won six in a row and just looked unbeatable.
The groans and boos from the Astros faithful in the summer turned to jubilant cheers and excitement into the fall. The Astros somehow finished the season 92-70 and came into the playoffs red hot.
The offense finished the season seventh in the NL, with some key players turning it on down the stretch. Lance Berkman led the way with a solid .310 batting average, with 30 home runs and 106 RBI and an OPS of 1.006. Jeff Kent had a great campaign, finishing with a .289 average to go along with 27 home runs and 107 RBI. Jeff Bagwell (.266 BA, 27 home runs, 88 RBI) and Craig Biggio (.281, 24 home runs, 61 RBI) had down years to their usual standards, but both really found their swing by the end of the year.
The pitching was the real story of the season. Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens were the dynamic one-two punch that were both dominant the entire season. Oswalt won 20 games and posted a 3.49 ERA with two complete game shutouts. And Roger Clemens, at age 41, posted a 18-4 record with a 2.98 ERA with 9.2 strikeouts per 9 innings to win his fourth Cy Young.
In the NLDS, the Astros took on the Atlanta Braves, a team that routinely ended the Astros season for the past decade. The Astros managed to win Game 1 at Turner Field and after a close Game 2 loss, went back to Minute Maid with the series nodded at 1-1. Houston gutted through a close Game 3 win then saw themselves leading 5-2 entering the seventh inning in Game 4, only nine outs away from the NLCS.
Then the ghosts of playoffs past reared its ugly head. Adam LaRoche goes deep on Chad “Over the Walls” Qualls to tie it in the 7th, and J.D Drew recorded a two-out RBI single in the ninth for the Braves to steal Game 4. Woof. The Astros had to go back to Turner Field for the deciding Game 5, and all us Astros Fans thought “Here we go again… another postseason loss to the Gosh-Darn Braves”.
But it didn’t happen that way. In Game 5, the Astros grabbed a 4-2 lead going into the seventh inning, but the Braves seem to be catching some momentum. Carlos Beltran hit an RBI single and Jeff Bagwell came through with a two-run homer for the Astros to go up 8-2. Put a fork in the Braves, they’re done.
Oswalt pitched a brilliant seven innings and the Astros won, 12-3. Houston found a way to exercise those pesky playoff demons and advance.
The Astros move on the NLCS against the juggernaut Cardinals, who were ready to pounce on them. The Astros got blasted in the first two games in St. Louis and headed back home down 2-0.
Roger Clemens started Game 3 and came through with seven strikeouts in seven innings. Jeff Kent, Carlos Beltran and Lance Berkman all went deep, Houston won Game 3 and the Cardinals finally didn’t look so unbeatable. The Astros won Game 4, and then in Game 5, Jeff Kent hit a walk-off dinger off Jason Isringhausen to give the Astros a 3-2 series lead. Momentum was back with the Astros, and the town was rocking. The team that was dead in the water in early August was now one win away from the World Series.
In Game 6, the Astros trailed the entire game after the first inning and went into the ninth inning down 4-3. Jeff Bagwell clutches up for a two-out single that scored Morgan Ensberg and tied the game up 4-4. However, Lance Berkman strikes out to end the inning with the leading run on third base.
The Cards and Astros traded off scoreless extra innings, then Jim Edmunds hits a walk-off homer off Dan Miceli to tie the series at 3-3. Busch Stadium went berserk and the Astros trot back into the dugout knowing they let this one get away.
In Game 7, Craig Biggio hit a leadoff home run and things look good. Houston goes into the 6th inning up 2-1 with Roger Clemens pitching lights out… and then it fell apart. Houston gets nothing in the top of the sixth and in the bottom of the inning, Clemens gives up a two-out double to Albert Pujols to tie the game. Next batter was Scott Rolen – who hits a line drive home run. 4-2, Cardinals.
The top of the lineup can’t get any hits off Julian Tavarez or Jason Isringhausen, and the Cardinals close it out 5-2. Cards go the World Series. Astros go home.
Houston came up short of their first World Series appearance, this time it was just close enough to really, really, really sting.
Biggest What If
I picked two just to twist the knife in a little more for us Astro fans.
Game 6 – Top of the 9th: Lance Berkman was up with two on and two outs, and the game tied 4-4. Isringhausen is really feeling the pressure from letting the Astros get back in the game and giving up a walk-off in Game 5. Berkman was on fire the entire postseason and seemed to be the perfect hitter for the situation. But with a 2-2 count and the go-ahead run 90 feet away, Berkman goes down swinging. If he’d just found a way to get the count full and get a base knock, Houston would’ve had the lead with Brad Lidge set to close thing out.
Game 7 – Top of 6th: Roger Clemens was such a monster all season and was the only guy you’d want out there to get you to the top. Perhaps the Astros rode him too much and he began to wear down at the end of the season. If he had found a way to get through Pujols and out of the 6th inning, Phil Garner would have had Oswalt and Lidge fresh and ready to come in and close things out. But instead, the greatest hitter at the time beat out the greatest pitcher at the time. And then Scott Rolen ripped our hearts out on the next at-bat.
Thankfully, the Astros erased some of that pain by beating the Cards the following year to make the World Series. However, this 2004 team was perhaps the best collection of talent Houston had ever put together, and one that was literally one extra hit or out away from a World Series.