Team Time Machine: 1986 Houston Astros

ST. LOUIS, MO - CIRCA 1987: Mike Scott #33 of the Houston Astros pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals during an Major League Baseball game circa 1987 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri. Scott played for the Astros from 1983-91. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - CIRCA 1987: Mike Scott #33 of the Houston Astros pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals during an Major League Baseball game circa 1987 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri. Scott played for the Astros from 1983-91. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) /
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“Do you like Huey Lewis and the News?”  Grab a case of New Coke, put on your white blazer jacket, pick up your Van Halen tape cassette and hop into your Honda Integra. Let’s take a time machine trip back to the year 1986.

Your president is TV actor Ronald Reagan, and your vice president is George Bush. The biggest news from that year was the mad cow disease spreading in the UK, and the Iran Contra scandal was made public in the United States. This year was also one of two terrible tragedies – the Challenger shuttle explosion on TV and the nuclear disaster Chernobyl.

The mighty Boston Celtics took out the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals, Jack Nicklaus became the oldest person ever to win the Masters at 46, and the Chicago Bears did the Super Bowl shuffle before running over The New England Patriots 46-10.

Top Gun, Karate Kid Part 2, Back to School, Oliver Stone’s Platoon and James Cameron’s Aliens were the biggest movies at the box office that year. Platoon went on to win Best Picture and Paul Newman won best actor for his role in The Color of Money. The most popular albums that year were Madonna’s “True Blue” , Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet”,  Van Haggar’s “1510” and the masterpiece known as the freakin’ Top Gun Soundtrack. The biggest songs that year were “Papa Don’t Preach” by Madonna, “Broken Wings” by Mr Mister, and “Addicted to Love” by Robert Palmer.

Everyone at home was either watching the Cosby Show, Family Matters, Cheers or Murder She Wrote on their big screen that likely weighed over 100 pounds. Guys dressed up in snazzy matching two piece suits, or they were trying out the pullover sweater look. And there was a good chance you had at least one friend with a white suit and glasses trying to look like Don Johnson in Miami Vice. Women were obsessed with wearing matching blazer skirts with fat jewelry , or they were dressed up in some sort of pink or blue pastel with frizzy hair while dancing to New Order at the Tech Noir night club.

Everyone at home had this giant collection of pages called a phone book, which apparently was full of phone numbers of everyone who lived in the area.  If you wanted to get ahold of someone while you were out on the town you had to use this thing called a phone booth. And if you had nothing to do on a weekend, chances are you would go check out the arcade at the local mall.

With a year full of entertainment, there stood the NL West Champion Houston Astros.

The Team

The Houston Astros, wearing the orange and yellow tequila sunrise jerseys, came into 1986 off a somewhat disappointing ’85 season where they finished third in the NL West and moved on from manager Bob Lillis. The manager was first year man Hal Lanier with Yogi Berra has one of his supporting coaches. The opening day lineup for this Astro squad was rookie Eric Bullock, Bill Doran, Denny Walling, Glen Davis, Alan Ashby, 38 year old veteran all-star Jose Cruz, Kevin Bass, Tony Walker and Dickie Thon. Craig Reynolds and future Houston Astros manager Phil Garner were the primary pinch hitters that year.

The Astros starting rotation was 31-year-old Mike Scott, Bob Knepper, 39-year-old future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, Jim Deshaies and the occasional appearance from either Danny Darwin or Mark Knudson. Dave Smith was the primary closer, while the rest of the pen consisted of Charlie Kerfeld, Aurelio Lopez, future Boston Red Sox pitcher Larry Anderson, and Frank DePino.

The Season

The Astros got off to a fast start, going 14-6 in the month of April, which included winning eight out of nine on an early season road trip. Fans were buzzing with excitement as many thought this could be the year Houston could make their first World Series. The team played .500 ball in May but were still able to maintain their division lead over the Cincinnati Reds. During this time Billy Hatcher took over as an everyday outfielder for the Astros.

The Astros continued as a .500 ball club in June and July, and it seemed maybe the team was finally running out of steam. The Astros went into the All-Star break one game down in the division with a 47-41 record. Four Astros were named to the All-Star Team that year – Mike Scott, Nolan Ryan, Kevin Bass and Glenn Davis.

Turns out the All-Star break was exactly what the Astros needed. Houston came back from the break refreshed and were red hot, winning 10 of 14 which included a seven-game win streak. During this win streak, the Astros won on an amazing five straight walk-offs against both the Expos and the Mets. By the end of July, Houston was 4.5 games up in the division, then after another run of seven wins in nine games they were up 7.5 games. It was a party at the Astrodome!

Once September came around Houston put the foot on the gas and left the rest of the division in the dust. Houston won an 18-inning game at Wrigley Field against Greg Maddux, then won another seven out of eight and sat 80-59 on September 10th. After a couple of hard luck walk-off losses in San Diego, Houston closed the season winning 14 of their last 18 games in dominant fashion to finish the season 96-66. The Astros won the division by 10 games and earned themselves a spot in the NLCS.

The story of this season was the amazing pitching by the Astros rotation, which was the best in the NL. Mike Scott finished the season with 18-10 record and a 2.22 ERA with five shutouts and 11 double-digit strikeout games to win the 1986 Cy Young. He posted an 8.2 WAR that season, which statistically is comparable to Greg Maddux’s 1994 season and Max Scherzer’s 2018 season. He was electric from start to end. Future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan didn’t have his best season, but he still went 12-8 as a 39-year-old, with some impressive starts – including a 14 strikeout, one hit win against the Expos and a 12 strikeout, one hit win against the Giants.

The Astros offense was fourth in the NL and was led by Glen Davis, who had a career year hitting .265 with 31 HRs, 101 RBIs with a solid OPS of .865. Davis was named an All Star, a Silver Slugger and ended up finishing second in the NL MVP voting that year behind Mike Schmidt. Kevin Bass was also an All Star that year, hitting .311 with 20 HRs and 79 RBIs – easily his best season as a pro. It was also career season for Denny Walling. While only managed to play 130 games, Walling still hit .312 with 13 home runs and some big, clutch hits throughout the season.

The Astros had guys in the lineup playing at their peak and two of the greatest pitchers in the game as primary starters. This Astros squad seemed like a team of destiny heading into the postseason.

What Happened?

The Astros punched themselves a ticket into the NLCS to go up against the mighty 108-win New York Mets. New York perhaps had one of the best teams in the history of baseball – the lineup was peak-Darryl Strawberry, All-Star Keith Hernandez, Hall of Famer Gary Carter, All-Star and amateur car thief Lenny Dykstra, Wally Backman, and Mookie Wilson. The Mets pitching staff was Dwight Gooden, Bob Ojeda, Ron Darling and Sid Fernandez. New York was crushing teams with impunity throughout the season, and many had already penciled them in as the World Series champs. This was going to be one tough hill for the Astros to climb over.

NLCS

In Game 1, the Astros beat the Mets in the Astrodome 1-0, with Glen Davis’s second inning homer off Dwight Gooden being the difference. Mike Scott put together one of the greatest playoff performances in baseball, throwing a 14-strikeout, one-walk complete game shutout. The Mets came back and smashed the Astros 5-1 in Game 2, so Houston flew out to the Big Apple with the series tied up 1-1.

In Game 3, the Astros go into the 9th inning up 5-4 and ready to take the series lead. But then Wally Backman gets on base with a bunt, followed by Dave Smith giving up a home run to Lenny Dykstra and the Mets win in a walk-off 6-5. Ouch, Ouch, Ouch.

Houston came back in Game 4 with an emphatic 5-1 victory, led by home runs by Alan Ashby and Dickie Thon. Mike Scott was incredible again, shutting down the juggernaut Mets lineup to throw a five-strikeout complete game. The Mets wanted nothing to do with Mike Scott.

In Game 5, the Astros and Mets were in a nail biter at Shea Stadium. Nolan Ryan and Dwight Gooden dual themselves in a playoff classic and the game goes into extra innings tied 1-1. In the top of the 10th inning, Houston found themselves with two on and two outs against a worn-out Dwight Gooden with a golden opportunity that take the lead. However, Gooden gets Billy Hatcher to fly out to end the inning, and then in the bottom of the 12th Gary Carter hits a single that brings Wally Backman home for another Mets walk-off win. Mets lead the series 3-2 heading back to Houston.

In Game 6, the Astros get three runs off Bob Ojeda in the 1st and are up 3-0 throughout the entire game going into the ninth inning. Fans were going bezerk as Houston needed just three more outs to get to a Game 7 with Mike Scott on the mound. But Lenny Dykstra gets a leadoff triple off; Bob Knepper and the Mets rally to get three runs in the 9th to tie it up. Arghhh!

What preceded was one of the longest, most anxiety-riddled baseball games in playoff history. The Mets and the Astros go back and forth without getting anything from the 10th to the 13th inning. It wasn’t until Wally Backman had an RBI single in the top of the 14th for the Mets to take the lead and it looked all but over for Houston. But then, 5 foot 9 Billy Hatcher came through in the bottom of the 14th with a huge home run blast that tied it back up, 4-4.

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That celebration didn’t last too long – in the top of the 16th a worn-out Astros bullpen gives up three runs and the Mets go into the bottom of the 16th up 7-4. However, the Astros mount another rally – Billy Hatcher and Bill Doran each have key RBI hits and then Kevin Bass steps up at the plate with two outs and two on, and has a chance to be the hero. But with a 3-2 count, Jesse Orasco gets Kevin Bass to swing and miss.

Orasco throws his glove in the air and the Mets dugout runs onto to the field in celebration as New York books themselves a trip to the World Series. Astro players and fans had to sit back and watch the Mets celebrate winning a pennant on their own turf. Just heart-wrenching.

The Mets would go on to win the World Series against the Boston Red Sox that included the infamous Bill Buckner error in Game 6. Houston couldn’t replicate the same success in the ’87 season, finishing 76-86 with no real chance of catching the San Francisco Giants. The Mike Scott-Nolan Ryan-Jose Cruz-Glenn Davis-Bill Doran Astros squad would never get this close to a World Series again.

Biggest What if

Top of the 9th, Game 3 -The obvious one is Kevin Bass getting a hit in the 16th inning to tie the game, but I’ll go with Game 3. Houston goes into the 9th inning only a few outs away from a lead, and then Wally Backman gets on base via a bunt and avoiding the tag.

If Wally Backman gets called out for going off the path to first base (as he should have been), then Houston would have been at one out and nobody on, and the chances of winning that game are even more likely. Assuming Houston would have held on to win Game 3, Houston would have been up 2-1 in the series with Mike Scott set to pitch Game 4 and Game 7. The way Scott was pitching that series, that probably would have been enough for Houston to get to the World Series. Instead, Lenny Dykstra delivers a crushing blow in Game 3 and later in Game 6.

Takeaway

1986 was the season we saw the best of Mike Scott. During this time of baseball where it was all about Mike Schmidt and the amazing Mets and Bill Buckner’s infamous play, Mike Scott’s 1986 season still to this day is one of the most criminally underrated pitching campaigns. Scott’s ‘86 Cy Young season is up there with the Roger Clemens ‘04, Randy Johnson ‘98 and Verlander ‘19 seasons as the most dominant ever in the history of the franchise. His career was cut short from injuries, but that shouldn’t take away just how great number 33 was for the Houston Astros during the late 80s.

Next. Houston Astros: Collin McHugh reunion needs to happen. dark

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