APRIL SHOWERS (1981-1985)

    Unlike the 1960s and 1970s when a few teams dominated the National League, the 1980s saw a lot of teams take their turn at the top. The Astros, coming off their first division crown thought they might become the dominant team but injuries, age and fate conspired against them. Another factor was the sudden dismissal of General Manager Tal Smith whose deft personnel moves built the Astros into champions.  His replacement, Al Rosen, lacked Smith's nose for role-players and the Astros spent several years thinking they needed one more player to get them over the hump.


    Without question, the major story of the year was a players strike lasting nearly two months during the summer. The baseball lords decided to substitute an extra round of playoffs for the lost months of action. They took the division winners of each "half" of the remaining season and set up a best-of-five divisional playoff. The idea had some flaws. Cincinnati won more games than anyone but was shut out of the postseason because they won neither "half" of division play.

    Free agency worked well for the Astros so they returned to the market the next year. They signed righthander Don Sutton, who had toiled as a Dodger for 15 years, and inked utilityman Dave Roberts. Morgan, his moral debt repaid, moved on to San Francisco as did Enos Cabell who was traded for lefthander Bob Knepper.  With a glut of starting pitching, Ken Forsch was shipped to the California Angels for infielder Dickie Thon.
Ryan: Catches a ride after his fifth.

    The Astros lost twelve of their first 15 games. The offense struggled. Knepper was the only one to get off to a good start, pitching back-to-back 1-0 shutouts. In one of the games, he had to supply his own run. Knepper became a source of controversy when a female reporter entered the Houston locker room. He refused to be interviewed until she left, saying women shouldn't be allowed in a room full of naked men. This wouldn't be the last time his views on women would become grist for the media.

    Panicked by the lack of runs, Houston sent Dave Bergman and Jeff Leonard to the Giants for Mike Ivie. A former catcher, Ivie was moved from behind the plate when he developed a mental block about throwing the ball back to the pitcher. He finally found a home at first base and slammed 27 homers in 1979. The next year, he struggled and retired in midseason but came back to play again before being traded. Houston hoped they had found a power hitter to put in the middle of their lineup. Instead, Ivie appeared in just 19 games before being hospitalized for "mental exhaustion". He did not hit one home run as an Astro.

    The offensive attack still managed a few highlights. Craig Reynolds tied a major league mark on May 16th when he hit three triples during a 6-1 victory over Chicago. Art Howe tripled on May 24th to set a club record with at least one hit in 23 straight games. His .375 average led the league at the time. Howe would end the year at .296 to lead the team.

    In June, still trailing the Dodgers in the standings, Houston dealt pitcher Joaquin Andujar to St. Louis for outfielder Tony Scott, then sent infielder Rafael Landestoy to the Reds for first baseman-catcher Harry Spilman. On June 12th, the strike began with Houston under .500 at 28-29.

    Play did not resume until August 10th when the Astros squeaked past the Giants in San Francisco. They began the "second season" by winning five of seven on the West Coast. The Astros made still another deal at the August 31st trade deadline, acquiring infielder Phil Garner from Pittsburgh for minor league infielder Johnny Ray.

    Bob Knepper and Nolan Ryan picked up steam down the home stretch. Knepper completed a homestand sweep with a three-hit victory over the Mets on September 2nd. He would finish with five shutouts in just 22 starts and sport a 2.18 ERA.

    Ryan blanked the Expos on September 4th. He beat the Giants later that month then faced the Dodgers in a critical game on September 26th that NBC televised as their "Game of the Week". Jose Cruz, as he did all season, supplied the offense while Terry Puhl made a great running catch in the seventh inning to provide the defense. The rest was all Nolan Ryan. He fanned eleven Dodgers and retired Dusty Baker for the final out to win, 5-0. The crowd went wild because Nolan had also just pitched the fifth no-hitter of his career, breaking the major league record he had shared with Sandy Koufax. Ryan would wind up with eleven victories in the abbreviated season and led the league with a 1.89 ERA.

    The Astros backed into the "second half" title when the Reds lost on October 3rd. Houston was 33-20 in the fall campaign and 61-49 overall. If the two halves made one complete season, the Astros would have finished third that year behind the Reds and the Dodgers. Houston was helped more than anyone by the union's summer recess.

The Divisional Series...

    It was a tale of two cities when "first half" champion Los Angeles and "second half" winner Houston met to decide the division crown. In Houston, the Astros silenced the Dodger bats. Ryan tossed a two-hitter, winning 3-1 when Alan Ashby drilled a dramatic two-run homer to win the game. They blanked L.A. the next day when Denny Walling drove in the game-winner in a 1-0, eleven-inning triumph.

    The roles reversed in Los Angeles. On consecutive days, Burt Hooton tossed a three-hitter, Fernando Valenzuela pitched a four-hitter and Jerry Reuss twirled a five-hitter as the Dodger put a sleeper hold on Houston's bats to win the series, 3-2. They would eventually win the World Series that year.

    The Astros began the season in a hitting slump and ended it the same way. A lot of bodies came and went during the campaign, leaving fans to wonder what was in store next spring.


    Up to this point, the Astros had one player in the team's history that was truly regarded as a superstar for his play in Houston. That man was Cesar Cedeno. The fellow who drew early comparisons to Clemente and Mays had a fine career but it didn't match the projections for one of his immense talents. Add on to this the charges of involuntary manslaughter, domestic abuse, hot-tempered outbursts and moments of dugout rage and it perhaps led Astros management to consider parting ways. The final straw may have been when he rushed into the stands in Atlanta to silence a man who called him "killer".  Still, it seemed unthinkable that Houston would ever trade him and yet they did. In an ironic twist, Cedeno was sent to Cincinnati for third baseman Ray Knight, a man who fought with Cedeno during the 1979 pennant race. Knight was also known as someone whose temper sometimes got the best of him.

    In fifteen months, the Astros had undergone a tremendous makeover from the roster that came within six outs of reaching the World Series. Four regulars and three starting pitchers remained from 1980. To say the pitching staff was getting up in years was an understatement. Joe Niekro, Nolan Ryan and Don Sutton were all 35 or older. The only under-30 starter was Bob Knepper who soured to a 5-15 record, beginning a love-hate relationship with Astro fans.

    The start of the 1982 season looked like a replay of the previous year. By April 18th, the Astros were already 7-1/2 games behind unbeaten Atlanta. Ryan got off to his usual slow start, notching his first win on April 26th. The next day, the bullpen received a shock when closer Joe Sambito blew out his left elbow while pitching against St. Louis. Dave Smith took over the closer role until he injured his back.

    Another reliever who struggled was Frank LaCorte. On May 26th, LaCorte walked the bases full before losing to Montreal. Afterwards, he burned his jersey in the locker room. He considered his number 31 a bad omen, representing the many times he fell behind in the count to hitters. The Astros gave him number 27 instead but his pitching didn't improve.

    Houston was in last place as late as mid-June. Ryan perked up with a four-hit shutout in Los Angeles on July 4th and a five-hit victory on July 27th to reach the 200-win mark for his career. He would toss a one-hitter and a two-hitter later in the year. Ryan would finish with 16 victories, the most of any year he had in Houston.

    By mid-August, it was clear that the Astros were out of the race. Two moves were made. Bill Virdon was fired after seven years at the helm, the longest of any Houston manager. Coach Bob Lillis, an original Colt .45, replaced him. The Astros also sent Sutton to Milwaukee for young prospects Kevin Bass, Frank DiPino, Mike Madden and cash. Sutton would finish with 324 career wins and a Hall Of Fame plaque.

    While the pitchers struggled, the hitters struggled even worse. Phil Garner led the club in homers (13) and RBIs (83) while Knight paced the club with a .294 average. Five Astros reached double-digits in steals, led by shortstop Dickie Thon with 37.

    Thon had pushed Craig Reynolds out of the lineup and soon more youngsters would get their chance. Bass got a long look in the outfield while Bill Doran got a September tryout at second base. Niekro won his 17th game, a shutout of the Reds, to finish the season record at 77-85. They were fifth in the division. The smell of championships had dissipated. In November, Judge Hofheinz died and perhaps it was fitting for the club to look like it had back in the 1960s.


     The Astros made another free agent move before the season, signing outfielder Omar Moreno from Pittsburgh. The swift Moreno was a league-leading base stealer but others complained he didn't do enough at the plate to earn his keep. In Pittsburgh, he had acquired the nickname "Omar The Outmaker". He replaced Tony Scott in center field. Houston also dealt reserve first baseman Danny Heep to the New York Mets for a struggling 28-year-old pitcher named Mike Scott.

    Art Howe sat out the season with injuries, forcing Phil Garner to third base and Ray Knight to first. Bill Doran filled the void at second. Alan Ashby would miss half the season. Injuries hit hardest among the pitchers with six missing time with various wounds including Sambito who would never again have the same effectiveness as he did before hurting his elbow. Although he tried valiantly to return to play after his stroke, J. R. Richard finally gave up his comeback bid.

Ryan: All-Time strikeout king.

    Houston suffered their worst Opening Day loss with a 16-7 mauling by the Dodgers. Charlie Lea of Montreal one-hit the Astros on April 16 while teammate Andre Dawson launched a LaCorte pitch into the gold level seats. The Astros were 1-10 and had acquired a bad habit of April meltdowns.

    Finally, the ballclub got something to boost their spirits. On April 27th, Nolan Ryan would strike out Montreal's Brad Mills on a curveball to break Walter Johnson's 56-year-old career strikeout mark of 3,508. Johnson's record was once thought to be untouchable like Babe Ruth's 714 homers and Ty Cobb's 4.191 hits. Ryan would later lose the record to Philadelphia's Steve Carlton but would get it back.

    The Astros would steal a win over New York on May 9th when Garner scored from third while Heep was arguing a call with the first base umpire. Time out had not been called. Scott picked up his first win as an Astro on June 4th with a four-hit shutout of the Reds. Ashby saw to it that the game would not be close, banging a pair of two-run homers as well as a two-run triple in the 13-0 whitewash. Scott would shut out the Braves on June 21st.

   Two players made the All-Star team with surprise performances. Dickie Thon had a breakout season, leading the team in homers (20) and steals (34) while batting .286. Such power from a shortstop was rare, particularly when the player spent half of his time in the cavernous Astrodome. The other surprise was rookie reliever Bill Dawley who won six and saved 14 out of the bullpen. Thon singled at the All-Star Game while Dawley pitched 1-1/3rd innings of scoreless relief.

    Lefthander Frank DiPino was another pleasant surprise, saving twenty games. Joe Niekro again led the club in wins with 15 while Ryan notched 14 victories and Scott ten. Jose Cruz had his best season with a .318 average, 14 homers and 92 RBIs. Knight batted .304 and drove in 70 runs.

    Omar The Outmaker wore out his welcome, getting traded to the Yankees in August for outfielder Jerry Mumphrey. While Mumphrey was also suspect as a hitter, at least he didn't cost as much. A switch-hitter, Mumphrey impressed his new bosses with a .336 average the rest of the season, nearly 100 points better than Moreno's average.

    The slow start put Houston behind all season. They climbed to an 85-77 record for third place, just six games behind the division-champion Dodgers. They just never seemed to be in the pennant chase though. Talk in Houston during the winter focused on how to avoid another April slump.


    The April jinx went from bad to worse. Dickie Thon, who had become an All-Star the year before, was hit in the head by a pitch from Mike Torrez on April 8th during a 3-1 loss to the Mets. The rising fastball glanced off the ear flap of Thon's batting helmet and shattered a bone above his left eye. Once the swelling went down, surgery was performed but Thon experienced blurred vision for many months. He was gone for the year.

    Two days later, the injury bug struck broadcaster Gene Elston in the form of an automobile which flipped him while he was jogging in Philadelphia. He suffered a broken nose, a broken leg and other ailments. By the end of the month, five other players joined Thon on the disabled list while the Astros were dropping eight of nine games. 37-year-old Nolan Ryan helped to right the ship on May 6th when he outdueled 18-year-old Mets phenom Dwight Gooden, 10-1. Ryan contributed a single during an eight-run uprising.
Thon: Beaned and blurred.

    Craig Reynolds reclaimed the job at shortstop while Enos Cabell came back to take over at first base. Slumping Ray Knight was traded to the Mets in August. With Alan Ashby injured again, Mark "Beetle" Bailey assumed duties behind the plate.

    Power was rare again for the Houstonians. However, they accomplished a rare feat on July 24th in San Francisco when Cabell, Phil Garner and Jose Cruz hit consecutive homers. It was the first time three Astros had homered in a row. Cruz homered again the next inning for good measure in the 10-3 thrashing.

    Cruz was again the main man in the Astros lineup. He led the club in average (.312), homers (12), runs (96), hits (187), steals (22) and RBIs (95). Cabell batted .310 and Terry Puhl hit .301. Bill Doran and Craig Reynolds worked well around second and each hit .260 or above. Jerry Mumphrey contributed a .290 average and 83 RBIs.

    In September, the Astros brought up Glenn Davis for the proverbial "cup of coffee". He got his first big league hit in his first game. His first home run came four days later. His power numbers at AAA Tucson were impressive and the Astros hoped he could develop into the slugger they felt they needed.

    For the fifth time in six years, Joe Niekro paced the club in victories with sixteen. Bob Knepper bounced back after two bad seasons to win fifteen. Bill Dawley won eleven and saved five out of the bullpen while squeezing out a 1.93 ERA.

    It was a year where the meek inherited the league. Two traditional doormats, the Chicago Cubs and the San Diego Padres, won their divisions and the Padres, seven years younger than the Astros franchise, reached the World Series before Houston. The Astros were locked in a three-way duel for second place. Atlanta and Houston would tie with lackluster 80-82 records, one game ahead of the Dodgers.


    Mike Scott had come off a 5-11 campaign and looked for all the world as if he was destined to be no better than a journeyman. A hard thrower, the 30-year-old Scott seemed unable to set up his fastball. He was sent to Roger Craig, a former Houston pitching coach who touted the wonders of a new pitch called the "split-finger" fastball. Bruce Sutter had used it with devastating success to become the dominant closer in the league. A large hand was needed to make it work. The index and middle fingers were spread further apart than the traditional baseball grip. The effect was a pitch that looked like a normal fastball until it moved sharply downward at the last instant. Just as the knuckleball restarted Joe Niekro's career, Mike Scott had found his second pitch.

    The Astrodome celebrated 20 years of action on April 9th. Nolan Ryan was the Opening Day starter against the Dodgers. He pitched seven innings for a 2-1 triumph and survived the distractions of a surprise visitor to get the win.

Niekro: Franchise record for wins.

    Pitching milestones were a storyline of the 1985 campaign.  Scott got his first win with the new pitch on April 22nd, allowing five hits in a 4-1 verdict over Cincinnati. He would notch 18 victories to lead the team. Ryan pitched his 200th complete game with a 6-2 victory over the Cubs on May 16th. Nolan recorded his record 4,000th strikeout on July 11th in the Dome against the Mets. Ex-teammate Danny Heep was the victim.

    Niekro struggled to achieve his goal. He failed in six attempts to break Larry Dierker's franchise record for career victories. At one point he offered bribes to the hitters if they'd just give him some extra run support. When the time finally came, Joe broke the record in style, spinning a two-hit shutout to beat the Giants on June 9th. It was his 138th win as an Astro. In mid-September, Niekro was traded to the Yankees for two minor league pitchers, including lefthander Jim Deshaies. Joe could once again pitch alongside his brother Phil, signed by the Yankees after the Braves had cast him aside.

    Not to be outdone in the milestone department was Jose Cruz who racked up his 2,000th hit on September 15th against San Diego. Cruz turned in another .300 average performance and the offense showed signs of explosiveness. They won by some un-Astro-like scores of 10-7 over Cincinnati, 10-0 over Montreal, 11-0 over San Diego, 10-0 over Philadelphia, 12-4 over the Mets, 12-9 over the Padres, 11-4 over Chicago and 17-2 over St. Louis.

    The hitters took off after Glenn Davis was called up from the minors in June. He powered 20 home runs with 64 RBIs. Some of the new guys followed his lead. Kevin Bass belted 16 long balls, Bill Doran swatted 14 round-trippers and Mark Bailey added ten. The club banged out 121 home runs, their most since 1973.

    On the last day of the season, the Astros had dollar signs in their eyes. A win over San Diego would tie them for third place and give each player a $700 payout. Alan Ashby's homer in the seventh inning made the difference. 6'-6", 270-lb. rookie Charlie Kerfeld pitched six innings in relief for the victory while Dave Smith claimed his 27th save. The Astros completed an 83-79 campaign and, while few noticed, the pieces were beginning to form for one of the most exciting seasons in team history.

Ashby: Caught three no-hitters.
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