Neil Hohlfeld / Special to MLB.com
Astros in the 80s: 56K
Two games, Two, heart-stopping, gut-wrenching games out of the roughly 1,600 played during the 1980's remain lodged in the throats of Astros' fans to this date.
The games were six years apart, but they almost seem to blend together. The end result is the main reason. The Astros lost both games in extra innings, preventing them from reaching the World Series in 1980 and 1986.
After winning their first division title in 1980, the Astros had a 5-2 lead in the eighth inning of a decisive Game 5 with Nolan Ryan on the mound. They were six outs away from the World Series. Instead, the Phillies scored five runs in the eighth inning and eventually won 8-7 in 10 innings.
Six years later, the Astros and New York Mets played what many consider to be the best playoff series in baseball history. In Game 6, the Astros led a 3-0 lead slip away in the ninth inning and eventually lost 7-6 in 16 innings. True, the Astros would have needed to win Game 7, but they had Mike Scott ready to face the Mets, and that was like money in the bank in 1986.
The constant in both cases was the sight of left fielder Jose Cruz, the heart and soul of the Astros during the first part of the 1980's, slumped in the dugout after the games, his head buried in his hands. Astros fans knew the feeling.
Despite those post-season failures, the 1980s were mainly a decade of triumph for the Astros, who advanced to the playoffs three times (they were beaten by Los Angeles during the strike-shortened 1981 season) and contended for the NL West title into September three other times.
Scott won the Cy Young Award in 1986 and won 20 games in 1989. First baseman Glenn Davis emerged as the Astros first power threat in more than a decade, hitting 142 home runs from 1985-89. Dave Smith saved 199 games from 1980-90 and remains the career leader in that category.
But the decade also was one of tumult. Midway through the 1980 season, J.R. Richard suffered a stroke that ended his career. Richard was the most dominating pitcher of his era, making power hitters look like Little League 10th-place hitters.
Later in the decade, the Astrodome took a hit from which it never recovered. In order to add 10,000 extra seats to prevent Oilers owner Bud Adams from moving to Jacksonville, Fla., the 474-foot exploding scoreboard that gave the Dome much of its character was dismantled. To make matters worse, the city eventually lost the Oilers anyway.
But the biggest loss of the 1980s came during the 1988 off-season. Nolan Ryan, the native son who had pitched with the Astros for nine seasons, was allowed to sign with the Texas Rangers as a free agent. The day after Ryan signed, owner John McMullen rightly predicted it would be years before Astros' fans would forgive and forget. They never have.
After many seasons of mediocrity, the Astros decided in 1985 that they needed a change in direction. New GM Dick Wagner wanted a team built around pitching, speed and defense. He hired Hal Lanier, who had learned that style of baseball under Whitey Herzog at St. Louis, to manage the club.
There was little to indicate something magical was about to happen when the 1986 season started. Lanier's aggressive approach took hold, and the pitching was never better. Scott, Ryan, Bob Knepper, Jim Deshaies and mid-season acquisition Danny Darwin formed a rotation that was second to none. The bullpen of Dave Smith, Charley Kerfeld, Aurelio Lopez and Larry Andersen had depth and grit.
Glenn Davis emerged as a true power hitter in his first full season in the majors with 31 homers and 101 RBI, which switch-hitter Kevin Bass hit .311. Second baseman Bill Doran's all-out style of play exemplified the new hustle of the Astros. The club went 96-66 and won the west by 10 games.
Scott delivered a devastating one-two punch against San Francisco on September 25. He pitched a no-hitter as the Astros clinched the division title, the only time in baseball history that has occurred.
But the season ended with the 16-inning playoff loss to the Mets. In that game, Billy Hatcher hit what likely is the most memorable home run in Astrodome history. After the Mets went ahead 4-3 in the top of the 14th, Hatcher led off the bottom of the inning with a home run that hit off the foul pole down the left field line. The Mets scored three runs in the 16th, but the Astros closed to within and had the winning run on base when Bass struck out to end the game and the season.
By the end of the 1980's, the Astros were looking to rebuild. Twice during the decade they rode pitching and defense to division titles. The 1980 and '86 teams gave Houston baseball fans memories that have lived on through the years.