1997 - Season Recap
(c) Bob Hulsey
When Astros broadcaster and former pitcher Larry Dierker was called into the General Manager's office after the 1996 season, he must have wondered what was up. He'd been a popular and successful "color" man and had provided some good insights to his listeners during games. Now he was offered the chance to put his words into practice. He was asked if he wanted to manage the Astros.
Larry decided that, if he failed, he could always go back to announcing, so he agreed to give it a try. While Houston fans were willing to give him a chance, the reaction of the national media was swift and derisive. Dierker had never managed or coached, even in the minors. The thought of a broadcaster becoming a manager was treated as a joke. Dierker, who was known to favor Hawaiian shirts, offered a laid-back contrast to the intense Terry Collins. The joke was on the rest of the National League Central Division.
It was called the "Comedy Central". The entire division had an underwhelming feel to it. The Pittsburgh and Cincinnati clubs were claiming poverty, the St. Louis squad was beset with injuries and the Chicago organization was plagued by their usual incompetence. The Astros, as frequently disappointing as they were, at least had the talent to rise above.
One obstacle Dierker faced was that he had only three certified starting pitchers to fill a five-man rotation. The Astros rolled the dice on two righthanders coming off arm surgery, Ramon Garcia and Chris Holt. They joined Reynolds, Mike Hampton and Darryl Kile in the rotation schedule.
Holt showed early promise. On April 20th, he held the Dodgers at bay while Craig Biggio swatted two homers in a 3-1 triumph. He would go 8-12 for the season despite a 3.52 ERA. As the fifth man, Garcia split time between starting and relief work, picking up nine wins with a 3.69 ERA.
Kile was the one who benefited most from the expertise of Dierker and his pitching coach, ex-Astro Vern Ruhle. A man whose curveball was considered one of the best in the game, Kile had been brutally inconsistent with Houston - a Knepper for the Nineties. With a new focus, not even Denver's new Coors Field bothered him. This was a park where double-digit scores were not uncommon. He blanked the Rockies, 7-0 on May 24th, allowing just four hits over seven innings.
Luis Gonzalez returned to Houston and found a vacancy in left field where he had patrolled for 4-1/2 seasons. A streak hitter, Gonzalez tied the club record for consecutive games with a hit on June 20 during a 7-3 win over the Cubs. He tied Art Howe's club mark of 23 straight games. He cooled down to a .258 average with ten homers for the year.
There were other holes to fill. Pat Listach started the season at shortstop but was soon replaced by Tim Bogar, Bill Spiers and Ricky Gutierrez. Spiers also split time at third with Sean Berry. Center field belonged, at times, to James Mouton, Derek Bell, Thomas Howard and Chuckie Carr. The sprightly Carr had the most speed but had burned bridges as easily as he burned basepaths, copping the attitude of Rickey Henderson without actually playing like Rickey Henderson. Bob Abreu's shot in the outfield was limited due to an injured wrist.
There was nothing wrong with the right side of the infield. Jeff Bagwell had another monster year at the plate, becoming the first Astro to reach 40 home runs on September 16th in a 15-3 bombing of San Diego. Bagwell would lead the club with 43 homers, 135 RBIs and 40 doubles. He became more aggressive on the bases, swiping 31 for the year.
Biggio paced the squad with a .309 average, 191 hits and 47 steals. Put in the leadoff spot of the batting order, Craig led the league with 146 runs scored. He also found time to launch 22 round-trippers and drive in 81, both totals second only to Bagwell.
This was the first year where teams from the American and National leagues played games against each other that mattered in the standings. The Central Division clubs from the National squared off against their American League counterparts. Houston's first game of this type came on June 13th against the Minnesota Twins. The Astros lost, 8-1, and didn't fare well against these new rivals. Fan reaction to interleague play outside of Houston was positive so the gimmick continued into following seasons.
All year long, the Astros hovered around the .500 mark. It was good enough for first place in the weak division, but Houston had to fend off a plucky challenge from the bargain basement Pirates of Gene Lamont. This was felt most keenly on July 12th when Francisco Cordova and Ricardo Rincon combined for a ten-inning, 3-0 no-hitter. It was the first time in 28 years that the Astros had tasted a no-hit defeat.
Kile led the pitching staff, racking up a 17-3 mark by the end of August. He cooled off to finish with a 19-7 record and a 2.57 ERA with four shutouts and 205 strikeouts. Hampton had a strong second half, completing a 15-10 season. Closer Billy Wagner won seven and saved 23 while fanning 106 batters in just 66 innings.
Down the home stretch, the Astros tried to win the division and keep their necks above water at the same time. After Derek Bell drove in four runs to pace a 10-3 win over the Dodgers on September 12th, Houston stood 3-1/2 games ahead of Pittsburgh but just two games ahead of .500.
The Clincher... (full recap)
On September 25th, eleven years to the day that Mike Scott last won a division title for Houston, Hampton pitched a four-hitter to give the Astros their first Central Division title. It came at home before joyous fans after a 9-1 pasting of Chicago. Brad Ausmus delivered a three-run bomb to blow open a close game. In one of life's freakier moments, the hit NBC medical drama "ER" chose that night to air their program live. To prove to viewers it was live, the Cubs telecast was carried in the background of various scenes. The TV directors happened to cut to a picture of the game when Ausmus hit the homer. When told of the feat, Brad was excited. "ER", he said, was his favorite series and he was taping the program to watch later, not knowing he would be on the show.
At long last, the Astros were champions again, albeit with an 84-78 record, but nobody seriously gave them a chance in the National League Division Series against the powerful Atlanta Braves. The Braves had a fearsome trio of starters in Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz, and the Astros' lineup relied heavily on the success of Biggio and Bagwell.
The NLDS... (full recap)
It turned out they were right. Darryl Kile gave the Astros a fine effort in Game One, giving up just two hits and supplying the offense but it wasn't enough to topple Greg Maddux who scattered seven hits in the 2-1 Atlanta victory.
Hampton, Garcia and Mike Magnante were hit hard in a 13-3 loss in Game Two. Ausmus provided the only Houston response with a two-run double off Tom Glavine.
Playing before the home folks was no tonic either. John Smoltz tossed a three-hitter as the Braves closed out the best-of-five sweep with a 4-1 win. The lone Houston tally came on a home run from Carr.
In an ominous foreshadowing of postseasons to come, the trio of Bagwell, Biggio and Bell were held to two hits and a combined .054 batting average. When you have to rely on the basestealing ability of lumbering catcher Tony Eusebio and the home run power of tiny Chuckie Carr to produce runs, you're not going to win many games.
For Dierker, it was a time to prove the naysayers were wrong. Now he had to prove it was no fluke.
1st place, NL Central
Nov 6 1996 - granted free agency to Danny Darwin(P), who signed with Chi-A on Feb 7
Nov 18 1996 - granted free agency to John Cangelosi(OF), who signed with Fla-N on Nov 26
Nov 18 1996 - granted free agency to Doug Drabek(P), who signed with Chi-A on Jan 14
Nov 22 1996 - signed Blas Minor(P) as a free agent
Dec 2 1996 - signed Sid Fernandez(P) from Phi-N as free agent
Dec 2 1996 - signed Pat Listach(IF) from Mil-A as free agent
Dec 4 1996 - signed Thomas Howard(OF) from Cin-N as free agent
Dec 9 1996 - Winter Major League Draft
Dec 19 1996 - signed Mike Magnante(P) from KC-A as free agent
Dec 19 1996 - signed Luis Gonzalez(OF) from Chi-N as free agent
Dec 20 1996 - granted free agency to Derrick May(OF), who signed with Phi-N on Jan 29
Dec 20 1996 - granted free agency to Jeff Tabaka(P), who signed with Cin-N on Jan 10
Dec 30 1996 - signed Russ Springer(P) from Phi-N as free agent
Jan 9 1997 - released Jim Dougherty(P)
Jan 25 1997 - signed Luis Rivera(IF) as a free agent
Feb 4 1997 - signed Tommy Greene(P) from Phi-N to a minor-league contract
Mar 14 1997 - signed J.R. Phillips(IF) as a free agent
Mar 31 1997 - traded Luis Lopez(IF) to NY-N for Tim Bogar(IF)
Apr 23 1997 - signed Carlos Hernandez(P) as non-drafted free agent
Jun 1 1997 - signed Chuck Carr(OF) as a free agent
Jul 1 1997 - released Pat Listach(IF)
Jul 17 1997 - granted free agency to Blas Minor(P)
Aug 15 1997 - traded Julien Tucker(P) to Chi-A for Tony Pena(C)
Oct 7 1997 - lost Donne Wall(P) to Cin-N off waivers
Oct 8 1997 - released Tommy Greene(P)
Oct 14 1997 - granted free agency to Randy Knorr(OF), who signed with Fla-N on Dec 22
Oct 28 1997 - granted free agency to Luis Gonzalez(OF), who signed with Det-A on Dec 9
Oct 28 1997 - granted free agency to Darryl Kile(P), who signed with Col-N on Dec 4.
Oct 28 1997 - granted free agency to Thomas Howard(OF), who signed with LA-N on Jan 7 1998.
Oct 30 1997 - granted free agency to Tony Pena(C)