Astros' season filled with milestones, drama
Three players notch 300th homer; medical woes abound
Even in a year in which they lost 88 games and finished in fifth place in the National League Central, the Astros certainly weren't without some headlines on and off the field.When the dust settled, the Astros had a new manager in Brad Mills and had overhauled their coaching staff, waved goodbye to veterans Jose Valverde, Miguel Tejada and LaTroy Hawkins and welcomed new faces in Matt Lindstrom, Brandon Lyon and Pedro Feliz.
Along the way, there were milestones aplenty. Houston became the first team in Major League history to have three players hit their 300th career homer in the same season when Lance Berkman, Ivan Rodriguez and Carlos Lee accomplished the feat. Tejada also notched his 2,000th career hit.The Astros made a push to contend in the NL Central and were one game out on July 22 after sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals before slumping in the second half. Cecil Cooper was dismissed as manager with 13 games remaining, and the winds of change began go blow. The 2009 calendar year didn't result in a playoff appearance for the Astros. But it certainly was memorable. January The Astros didn't make any players acquisitions in January after having their roster practically set by the end of 2008. Perhaps the biggest news the club generated in the month was in the Minor Leagues, where former first-round pick Max Sapp, a catcher, nearly died from a battle with meningitis and wound up missing the entire 2009 season. Houston ended the month by providing good news, announcing it had teamed with Major League Baseball and the city of Houston to build the Houston Astros MLB Urban Youth Baseball Academy. February Tejada was charged Feb. 10 with lying to congressional investigators about the use of performance-enhancing drugs. He later apologized to his teammates at Spring Training for causing a distraction and was sentenced to probation and a small fine. Mike Hampton's first week of Spring Training in his Astros return was cut short when an EKG showed a "glitch," forcing the left-hander to return to Houston to have his heart checked out. He got a clean bill of health, but wound up battling other injury problems for the rest of the year. Hampton returned to camp just days before Lee reported late because he was confused about the dates. Another player departed camp permanently later in the month when catcher Toby Hall had his contract voided because of a torn labrum, leaving Houston in search of catching help. March Hawkins was asked to play in the World Baseball Classic, joining other Astros big names including Lee (Panama), Roy Oswalt (USA) and Tejada (Dominican Republic). The Astros suffered a departure of another kind March 8 when Brandon Backe strained an intercostal muscle and would up missing the rest of spring. In the middle of the month, the Astros called a mysterious news conference for a major announcement. Speculation ran rampant until Aaron Boone revealed in an emotion-filled room March 18 he was going to have open-heart surgery and likely miss the season. He returned in September in one of the year's biggest feel-good stories. On the field, the Astros got off to a woeful 1-15-3 Spring Training start that bothered Cooper. Houston needed help and on March 20 agreed to a one-year deal with 14-time All-Star catcher Rodriguez. General manager Ed Wade pulled off another key acquisition March 31 when he got versatile infielder Jeff Keppinger in a trade from the Reds for a player to be named later (Minor Leaguer Drew Sutton). April The Astros kicked off the 10th season at Minute Maid Park by losing to the Cubs, 4-2, on Opening Day, during which ace Oswalt gave up two home runs. That would be a sign of things to come for Oswalt, who won only eight games in 30 starts. A season-long rash of injuries to the pitching staff began April 11 when Doug Brocail was revealed to have a shoulder strain. Brocail went on the disabled list twice in April and was joined on the DL by closer Valverde (calf strain) and starter Brian Moehler (sprained knee). Despite a slow start, Cooper had his option for 2010 picked up on April 18. That wound up being a costly move for the Astros, who let Cooper go five months later. One of the reasons the Astros struggled early was slugger Berkman hit just .162 in April, which was more than 100 points lower than his average for any other month in 2009. Houston went 9-13 in April and finished the month 6 1/2 games out of first place. May In a game in which Oswalt left with a bruised bone on his right index finger, the Astros and Nationals were postponed May 5 while tied at 10 in the 11th inning because of rain. The Nationals wound up winning on an unearned run two months later in Houston. May provided more medical drama in Houston, as hitting coach Sean Berry revealed he was going to have surgery to remove a cancerous right kidney on May 8. On the same day Berry's condition was announced, Boone returned to the Astros' clubhouse for the first time since undergoing open-heart surgery March 26. Oswalt finally picked up his first win of 2009 on May 10 when the Astros unleashed a 15-hit attack to beat San Diego, 12-5, and complete a thee-game sweep. Three days later, they erupted for a season-high 24 hits in a 15-11 win at Colorado that marked the first time in club history all nine starting players had at least two hits, including four by the struggling Berkman. The first of three 300th career homers by an Astros player came May 17 when Rodriguez went deep at Wrigley Field. But in an indication of how the season was going, the Astros batted out of order May 21 when Cooper posting two different lineups. The Astros still won the game, 6-4, over Milwaukee. The otherwise forgettable month, in which the Astros lost seven in a row at one point and went 11-16, saw another player go down with injury when Kaz Matsui was placed on the disabled list May 30 with a strained right hamstring. June The month started off on a good note when Berry rejoined the team just weeks after undergoing surgery to remove a cancerous kidney. The good times kept rolling a night later when Tejada had four hits, including the game-tying RBI in the ninth and the game-winner in the 10th, in a 3-2 win over Colorado. Two Astros pitchers saw their tenures in Houston end during June: Geoff Geary was outrighted to Triple-A Round Rock on June 10 and never returned, and fan favorite and playoff hero Backe was designated for assignment June 27. The Galveston native came up huge for the Astros in the 2004 and '05 playoffs but never regained his form following Tommy John elbow surgery. More milestones fell in June. On June 13, Tejada notched his 2,000th career hit and Berkman swatted his 300th homer four pitches apart in the sixth inning of a 6-4 win over Arizona. Rodriguez set the all-time record for games caught in a 5-4 win at Texas on June 17, appearing in his 2,227th career game at catcher. Berkman notched his 1,000th RBI on June 25 with a two-homer game against Kansas City. Strong pitching performances punctuated the end of the month. Right-hander Felipe Paulino returned from the disabled list June 27 and allowed one run and struck out nine batters in seven innings in an 8-1 win over Detroit. Oswalt tossed a two-hitter at San Diego two nights later to help the Astros to a 16-11 record in June. July The Astros should have known they were in for a strange month when their finale against the Padres on July 2 at PETCO Park was delayed 52 minutes in the ninth inning when a swarm of bees invaded the outfield. Geoff Blum -- a member of the Killer B's -- hit a three-run homer and drove in four to help the Astros win and create a buzz. Tejada and Hunter Pence were named to the National League All-Star team as reserves, though Pence didn't get a chance to play in the Midsummer Classic. Wandy Rodriguez certainly performed like an All-Star in July, going 4-0 with a 0.75 ERA in the month, including a shutout of the Pirates. He was named NL Pitcher of the Month. Houston went into the All-Star break having won seven of nine games and came out by winning six of eight, including a scintillating three-game sweep of the Cardinals at Minute Maid Park that got the Astros to within a game of first place on July 22. But Berkman, who broke out of his early funk, was placed on the disabled list the following day with a strained calf, and the Astros dropped six of their final seven games of the month. While promising rookie Bud Norris made his Major League debut July 29, the Astros, still reeling from the loss of Berkman from the starting lineup, lost Oswalt for two weeks when he suffered a left lower back strain against the Cubs on July 28. Houston went 15-12 in July. August Norris made his first Major League start Aug. 2 at Busch Stadium and threw seven scoreless innings against the first-place Cardinals, singling in his first at-bat. A few days later, Lee became the third Astros player to wallop his 300th homer when he did it against the Brewers on Aug. 8. The second-half injuries that plagued the Astros continued to be an issue. Brocail was placed on the disabled list for the third time of the year and 15th time of his career with a right shoulder strain, with infielder/outfielder Darin Erstad being activated after being slowed with a hamstring strain. Hampton left his Aug. 13 start at Florida with a shoulder strain in what could have been the final start of his career. He wound up having shoulder surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff and was expected to miss all of 2010. Berkman (calf strain) and Hawkins (shingles) were activated from the disabled list, but Wesley Wright went on with shoulder fatigue. The Astros waved goodbye to Rodriguez on Aug. 18 when he was traded to the Texas Rangers for three Minor Leaguers. While the Astros struggled on the field, Oswalt said after a 3-2 loss to Cardinals on Aug. 26 that his team played with no fire. Berkman called a players-only meeting the following day to remind the team to keep playing hard. Houston went 12-16 in August. September Boone capped his improbable comeback when he started for the Astros at first base on Sept. 2, barely five months after undergoing open-heart surgery. He went 0-for-3 in his first game in nearly a year and didn't collect a hit the rest of the season, but he was one of the team's biggest success stories of 2009. September was a strange month in the win-loss columns. Houston swept four games from defending champion Philadelphia and less than a week later went on a nine-game losing streak that ultimately led to the dismissal of Cooper with 13 games left. Third-base coach Dave Clark took over Sept. 21 without the use of his ace pitcher. Oswalt's frustrating season came to an early end when the club announced Sept. 16 it was shutting him down for the rest of the season with back pain. He set a franchise record with 16 no-decisions in 30 starts. October The Astros began the month by beating Philadelphia to finish 6-2 for the season against the Phillies. They were then swept in three games at New York, being outscored 16-2, to end the season. Tejada needed two hits in the season finale to reach 200, but wound up stuck at 199 and ended the year on a 21-game hitting streak. Clark went 4-9 as interim manager and put his hat in the ring for the full-time job that eventually went to Mills. General manager Ed Wade began searching for a manager immediately after the season and interviewed 10 candidates, including former manager Phil Garner. Houston offered the job to former Washington manager Manny Acta, who turned it down when he couldn't get a three-year deal. Wade then turned his attention to Mills, who took the job Oct. 27 after six seasons as Boston's bench coach. By the time the month was over, the Astros had hired Brad Arnsberg to be pitching coach, Al Pedrique to be bench coach and Bobby Meacham to be first-base coach. November Center fielder Michael Bourn became the first Astros player to win a Gold Glove since catcher Brad Ausmus, who took home the previous three Houston awards in 2001, '02, and '06. He was the second Astros outfielder to win the award, joining five-time winner Cesar Cedeno (1972-76). Bourn was also named the Astros' Most Valuable Player by the Houston chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America after a season in which he led the league with 61 steals and hit .285 with 97 runs scored and 12 triples. In addition to Bourn, the BBWAA voted left-hander Wandy Rodriguez as the team's Pitcher of the Year and reliever Jeff Fulchino as Rookie of the Year. Moehler won the Darryl Kile Good Guy Award, which is given to a player who exhibits good character. December The Astros were one of the most active teams at the Winter Meetings in Indianapolis. After Valverde rejected the team's offer of arbitration to remain a free agent and Hawkins signed with Milwaukee, Houston traded for reliever Lindstrom from Florida and signed reliever Lyon to a three-year, $15 million deal and third baseman Feliz to a one-year, $4.5 million deal. That meant the Astros had closed the door on Valverde and Tejada, both of whom played well in their two seasons in Houston. Backup outfielder Jason Michaels re-signed on Dec. 14, putting the 40-man roster at its max and likely signaling the final major move of the offseason for Houston. But just in case the year didn't have enough drama, owner Drayton McLane admitted he entertained selling the team to Houston businessman Jim Crane in 2008 before Crane backed out. Just think of all the drama he would have missed.
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.