All Things Astros and a whole lot more
Heading into the 1979 season, the Astros were the latest rendition of a terrible tradition. While not as bad as the 2011-2013, 106, 107, 111 loss seasons, the team back then had finished 17 consecutive seasons more than 10 games out of the league/division lead. In the 6 previous seasons (1973-1978), they had finished 17, 21, 43.5, 22, 17 and 21 games out of first place. Bottom line, the team created in 1962 on the mosquito riddled plains of southeast Texas had never really experienced a pennant race. Ever.
The 1979 Astros, similar to this season’s team, made some subtle upgrades in the off-season and adjustments on the fly during the season. Trades by GM Tal Smith (yeah the “Hill” guy) brought them C Alan Ashby, SS Craig Reynolds and OF Jeffrey Leonard (Leonard actually the previous September). Ken Forsch was moved from the bullpen to the rotation before the season and eccentric, but talented Joaquin Andujar was shifted from the bullpen to the rotation during the season. In a change that makes you wonder about implications for today’s team, the Astros moved CF Cesar Cedeno (the George Springer of the day) to 1st base after a knee injury sidelined him for most of 1978. Joe Sambito had shared the closer’s role with Forsch in 1978, but took it over in 1979.
The Dodgers had become the dominant team in the NL West taking over from the Reds, who were still a good team, but not a Big Red Machine great team as they were earlier in the 1970’s. After losing to the Yankees in the ’78 World Series, the ’79 Dodgers were mediocre. They still had one of the best offenses in the league, but their pitching went from #1 to #9 in runs allowed. After the 7th game of the season, they never again were above .500 for the season and finished at 79-83.
The Astros under Bill Virdon, got off to a decent start, but were just above .500 at the end of May when they went on a 25-8 run. On the 4th of July they were 52-31 and 10.5 games up on the 41-41 Reds with the rest of the division struggling under .500. Similar to this season, there were signs that maybe not all the success was on solid foundation. On July 4th, their pythagorean record (based on only scoring 25 more runs than they allowed) said the Astros should have been 45-38 and only 3-1/2 games up. Shortly after this date, the Astros lost 12 of 13 games to cut their lead in 1/2. The Astros clung to their shrinking lead tenaciously, until surrendering it in late August after holding it for 81 games (similar to the 79 game hold this season). The Astros never regained the lead, but after falling behind by 2.5 games – they held serve and after beating the Reds head to head twice in late September – they were only 0.5 game back. They lost the 3rd game of the series and ended the season at 1.5 games back with an 89-73 record. The Reds were 90-71 and were not forced to make up one postponed game.
The plus side to this crash and burn was that the 1980 Astros were playoff race tested and that team finally played in the first postseason for the Houston team.
The point here is that the current Astros, like those 1979 Astros are unexpected contenders, because of early season mediocrity in the division along with what in retrospect were some unsustainable stats. Remember those insane won-loss records early in the season when they scored 1st, when they scored 4 runs, when they hit two homers in a game, etc.. Fans and probably the players knew that this amount of success could not be sustained. However, the Astros can still right the ship and stay in contention and it is important that this team of youngsters get their first real exposure to a pennant race, if not for this season then for down the line.