Dec. 23, 2017
Greatest Teams Never to Win a World Series in the Past 30 Years-98 Astros
As I mentioned before with the 1998 Braves, 1998 seemed to be one of baseball's memorable years....well, in that year. You had Roger Maris's record being chased and ultimately destroyed by McGwire and Sosa (of course later on all of our excitement changed to disappointment as the steroid scandal blew up for both). The Yankees were chasing history of having the winningest franchise. Ripken's streak ended. The Braves looked to be as dominant as ever. Boston had Pedro Martinez fever. And it just seemed like something was going on everywhere.
The Houston Astros had quietly built a contender in the NL Central for a while. Hidden in the later years of the NL West because of the Braves and Giants, Houston started to turn things around when the re-alignment hit. They finished second both years in 95 and 96. In 1997 however, the Astros pulled it all together to win their first division title in 12 years. The reasons were simple, yet effective. They had a slugging star first baseman in Jeff Bagwell. They had probably the best second baseman in the NL with Craig Biggio. The rest of the lineup wasn't stout but served well such as Derek Bell, Bill Speiers, and even Sean Berry got in the act. At this time, Houston, thanks to Biggio and Bagwell (and to a lesser extent Bell) were dubbed the Killer B's. Adding on, the Astros had an ace in Darryl Kile who won 19 games while Mike Hampton and Chris Holt had strong years. However, Houston got swept in the NLDS by Atlanta, who was more experienced in the post-season.
However, Houston was stung by Kile's exit when he signed a huge deal with the Colorado Rockies after the season and the pitching was left a void. Houston moved the energetic Jose Lima into the rotation to go along with Hampton, Reynolds, and Sean Bergman was also added. The starters all did very well, but nobody was a true ace like Kile was for Houston.
That wasn't to say though that the Astros opted to fold tent. Houston'made two key trades to bolster the outfield: getting Carl Everett from the New York Mets and Moises Alou from the Marlins, to help Bagwell, Biggio, and Bell.
It paid off for Houston's offense. Alou matched Bagwell's numbers, and had more RBI and HR than the first baseman, hitting .312 with 38 HR and 124 RBI. Alou finished 3rd behind Sosa and McGwire in 1998 in MVP voting. Carl Everett was sound all over at the plate, hitting .296. In fact, save maybe at shortstop with Ricky Gutierrez, the entire offense, including those guys as well as Brad Ausmus, and Bill Speiers, had great years. And they ALL could do it all. Hit, run, etc. In fact, the entire everyday lineup each had double digits in stolen bases. Added with a solid rotation, the Astros despite not getting the same media attention as their two division rivals in the Cubs and Cardinals, were running away with the division by early July.
However, the one glitch they had was that rotation. Houston needed an ace to help out and go against the likes of the Braves starters, Kerry Wood (who one-hit them earlier in the year with the famed 20 strikeout performance), and Kevin Brown. The Astros hit a July snag where the pitching wasn't holding their own. Houston needed another starter let alone ace.
Enter the Big Unit. Seattle inexplicably struggled in 1998 and with Johnson, an impending free agent not being committed to stay with the Mariners, were looking to gain a return back for their dominant ace At the deadline, we heard the usual suspects that wanted to get Johnson, such as the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, and Braves. However, Seattle's asking demands were high, at least to those teams. However, Houston, with confidence in their farm system, and feeling like this was their year as well as holding off the Cubs, went all in. The Astros sent a package including Freddy Garcia and Carlos Guillen to Seattle for Randy Johnson.
And he was a godsend for Houston. After the trade was made, it spiked the Astros players of "you know we can do this thing!" The Astros were 65-44 when the trade occurred. After the trade happened, Houston went 37-16 the rest of the way, including going 10-5 against the Cubs and Braves, two teams that many considered to be the biggest threats to them. Johnson, who had struggled in his final year in Seattle, was reborn. He went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA and a WHIP under 1. And the K/9 rate was nearly at an astounding 13. He was darn near unhittable.
The bullpen was okay, though the Astros had a young fireballing lefty in Billy Wagner who just made players look silly. The others were serviceable with Jay Powell, Scott Elarton, Doug Henry and CJ Nitkowski. Was it outstanding? No, but given how the Astros played down the stretch it wasn't needed to be outstanding.
The Astros won 102 games in 1998, the most in franchise history at that point. And better was that the tough-as-nails Cubs would have to face the Braves (who finished 4 games better than the Astros) in the NLDS while they got the seldom-talked San Diego Padres. What could go wrong?
WHAT WENT WRONG? It was simple and the old adage came in: "great pitching beats great hitting." Even with Johnson on the mound, Houston was atrocious at the plate, hitting a meager .182 in the NLDS against the Padres. 1 HR was hit by them (Bell) and Alou (.188), Bagwell (.143), Bell (.125), and Everett (.154) was non-existent. Houston only mustered 1 run in 3 of the 4 games. Not even the good pitching the Astros got out of Reynolds and Hampton helped. And San Diego beat Johnson twice, the first game and the 4th game. Many believed that Houston at this point was cursed for baseball with 1980 and 1986 being remembered as great misses. This may have been the biggest miss the Astros had for a world championship.
AFTERMATH: Houston didn't have Randy Johnson around after 1998. He headed to Arizona after his run. Adding injury to insult, Moises Alou suffered a major knee injury in the off-season and missed the 1999 season. The offense wasn't as stout, though Carl Everett had a great year and Bagwell & Biggio were Bagwell and Biggio. Mike Hampton however, became an ace for the Astros going 22-4 with a 2.93 ERA for them and finished behind Johnson in the Cy Young voting. Houston won the division in their final year at the Astrodome (3rd straight division title). But again, the Astros got into the NLDS and had cold bats, losing to the Braves in 4. Of course the biggest memory was Game 3 when the Astros loaded the bases up in the bottom of the ninth tied at 3 with no out and couldn't muster a run. It was an opportunity squandered.
Just like the 98 Astros season.
Houston opened Enron Field aka Minute Maid Park and had massive adjustment issues as the ballpark played far smaller than the large Astrodome. The fly ball pitchers of Reynolds, Lima, and others were getting crushed as the Crawford Boxes paved way for home runs that may not have even been warning track outs in the Astrodome. Hampton was fortunate enough to get traded to the Mets after the 1999 season (and then unfortunate enough to sign a huge contract with the Rockies) The adjustment was short lived for the Astros as they figured it out and made the playoffs in 3 of the next 5 years including a World Series run in 2005. However, only Biggio really remained (Bagwell was dinged up at the end of his career) from the 98 Astros squad, but Houston still had a big time Killer B in not Biggio or Bagwell but Lance Berkman who really kept things going for Houston when he arrived in 2001.
But to me I always liken had the bats got going against San Diego, the Yankees would have had the massive threat to their title in 1998. Oh well, I guess we can celebrate the fact Houston eliminated them in 2015 and 2017 in the ALCS en route to the World Series.
OTHER GREAT TEAMS NEVER TO WIN A WORLD SERIES IN 30 YEARS
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat