Astros 1980: A season to remember

The Astros made their first playoff appearance in 1980. This was after their first 18 regular seasons ended unsuccessfully with trips to their homes and another hopeful off-season rather than a post-season series. While the expansion Amazing Mets (five out of six 100+ loss seasons) and the Astros of the early 2010’s (three 100+ loss seasons) had much worse single-season numbers, the expansion Colt .45s / Astros were bad and unfortunately sustainably bad.

The team’s first 7 seasons all ended with 90 or more losses and with the Colt .45s / Astros ending up 8th, 9th or 10th out of the 10 team National league each year. In their first 18 seasons, they only had 3 seasons over .500. By the time the early 70’s came around the burgeoning attendance due to the opening of the Astrodome had dipped from 2.1 million in its first season to 858,00 and 886,000 in 1975-76.

So, the solution was to build a better and more competitive team under Manager Bill Virdon. By the time 1979 came around, the fans came out in droves (1.9 Million) as the team raced out to a 10-1/2 game lead over the Reds by the 4th of July. But soon after they lost 12 of 13 to the Cubs, Pirates and Cards and their lead on the pack melted to 3.5 games. The team steadied itself a bit but looked like a team in their first pennant race as the lead oozed away. They entered September in second place to the Reds, won two in a row from Cincy late in the year to draw within 1/2 a game, but lost the third game of the series and ended up 89-73 and 1-1/2 games out.

The 1980 team was built on great pitching and middle of the road offense. Unlike 1979, where the Astros had gotten that 10.5 game lead, this season was a nail biter all the way for the team. They never led their division by more than 3.5 games, nor trailed by more than 3.5 games.

The Astros’ hitters were nothing like the modern version fans have been watching the last few years. Terry Puhl led the team with 13 HRs (The 2019 Astros had 9 guys with more than 13 HRs). No one on that 1980 team had more than Jose Cruz‘s 91 RBIs or his 79 runs scored (The 2019 Astros had five guys with more than 79 runs scored and three with more than 91 RBIs and Michael Brantley with 90).  Veterans like Cruz, Cesar Cedeno, Art Howe, Enos Cabell and the newly acquired Joe Morgan led a solid, but unspectacular offense that ended up 7th in runs scored and OPS and 6th in BA in the National League.

The pitching, especially the starting pitching…..that was the heart of this team. Joe Niekro (20-12, 3.55 ERA), Nolan Ryan (11-10, 3.35 ERA), J.R. Richard (10-4, 1.90 ERA), Ken Forsch (12-13, 3.20 ERA) and Vern Ruhle (12-4, 2.37 ERA) led the team to the #1 spot in staff ERA in the NL.  The team won a lot in the late innings and the bullpen showed that being led by Joe Sambito (8-4, 2.19 ERA, 17 saves), Dave Smith (7-5, 1.93 ERA, 10 saves) and Frank LaCorte (8-5, 2.82 ERA, 11 saves).

The key moment in this season did not happen in a game. J.R. Richard was having the most dominant season of his career but began complaining of arm fatigue and vision problems in July. Tests found nothing serious, but playing catch in the Dome on July 30th he suffered a massive stroke. The team went on filling in with starts from Joaquin Andujar and Gordie Pladson (Gordie Pladson??), but the hole in the rotation probably hurt them most at the most critical times in the season.

The season was a semi-three team race in the NL West between the Astros, Reds and Dodgers. The Reds came and went, getting down a half dozen games and then coming back to contend, but eventually falling 3 games short. The Dodgers fell 6 games back in April, but quickly righted the ship and swapped the division lead with the Astros starting in mid-May all the way to the end. September was tremendously tight with neither team holding more than a 2 game lead.

The Astros won 6 of 7 to take a  3 game lead with 3 games left. Unfortunately, the 3 games were all on the road in L.A. The Astros then lost three one-run games in a row, blowing leads late in two of the games to fall into a one-game play-off in Los Angeles.  In the game that finally put the Astros in the playoffs, Joe Niekro threw a complete game, scattering 6 hits, Art Howe had 3 hits, including a huge 2 run homer and knocked in 4 runs and the Astros won 7-1 and were headed to a matchup with Philadelphia.

This NLCS was the heartbreaker of all heartbreakers for the Astros. The Phillies won the first game behind Steve Carlton 3-1, scoring 2 runs in the 6th and 1 in the 7th for a come from behind win. This would be the only one of the five games to end in regulation and the come from behind theme would be the Astros un-doing.

In the second game, Dave Smith blew an 8th inning lead, but the Astros exploded for four runs in the 10th inning and won 7-4 to even the series. In the third game (the Astros first playoff home game), Niekro and Smith combined for 11 innings of shutout ball, Morgan led off the 11th with a triple and Denny Walling brought him home on a sac fly. The Astros were now one win away from their first trip to the World Series, but it ended up being a Bridge Too Far.

Vern Ruhle took a 2-0 lead into the 8th inning of Game 4. He gave up 3 straight hits, Smith came on and gave up a 4th and the Phils took a 3-2 lead. The Astro tied it up in the bottom of the 9th, but Sambito in his 3rd inning of pitching gave up run-scoring doubles to Greg Luzinski and Manny Trillo and the Astros lost 5-3.

Game 5 was the killer in a series of heart-rending moments. The Astros came from behind to take a 5-2 lead heading into the 8th inning. That half inning (like the 8th inning against the Royals in 2015 ALDS Game 4) was an inning that would never end. Nolan Ryan gave up 3 straight singles and a walk to start the inning and was pulled. Joe Sambito got an out but Ken Forsch got knocked around and five total runs had scored to give the Phillies a 7-5 lead. The Astros valiantly battled back to tie in the bottom of the 8th, but the Phillies scored in the top of the 10th and the Astros lost their best chance for a World Series appearance 8-7.

While there may not be any crying in baseball, for this fan on this night there was.

The Phillies went on to beat the Royals to win their first WS in many seasons. The Astros and their fans went on to wonder why.



42 comments on “Astros 1980: A season to remember

  1. I recall that season very well. I can remember staying up till midnight and later during those three loses in LA. Took off work to watch the playoff game (day game). It was a nerve racking game even though Niekro was obviously in a groove.
    I asked God to please let them be in the playoffs even if they lost. He granted me that wish. Kinda wish I’d asked for a little bit more.
    After the game I remember a deejay on the radio playing Willie Nelson “ On The Road Again” and dedicating it to the Astros saying, yep, they are on the road but they ain’t headed to Houston. They are on the way to Philadelphia.
    But those playoffs were a nightmare to watch.

    Baseball is fading in my mind. Seems like years since the WS. So much pain and fear to think about.
    I can’t help but wonder if that world we lived in will ever be back.

    Fun to remember those past years. 1981 wasn’t as exciting but 1986 brought a wonderful new experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The 1980 playoffs were the most devastating blow I have had as an Astros fan. It was 25 years before I got the mojo back to be a crazy Astros fan.
      Sandra, I use this blog to keep my love for the Astros going. Being in our seventies during this virus situation and all of the political and social upheaval of the last couple of weeks has led me to look for more to do to stay away from the news.
      I bought a steer calf yesterday. It will be for my wife and I to provide for it all by ourselves from now until Christmas time. I found a meat market that will process the calf when I bring it in on December the 3rd. That is the earliest appointment I could find and it coincides perfectly with the plan I had. I was by this calf when it was born and I helped my son band the little guy to make him a steer. He is with our herd and his mom until October the 1st when I will put him in a pen I will build for him next to the garden, so we will have easy access to fresh water.
      This is one of the things I am doing to keep us sane and secure. I took the coffee pot outside and ran vinegar through it this morning and I will pour that hot vinegar on the cracks in the walkway to kill the weeds. I will go to a local community prayer session tonight to pray for “Unity in Our Community” on the parking lot of a church we don’t attend. we will mask and social distance outdoors. It will be very warm!
      I just do things that please me or my wife and am trying to stay fit. I rejoined the gym, but haven’t been brave enough to go yet. There are only a total of 45 cases in our county since the very beginning and 1 death, but I am still going to be careful.
      Here’s hoping you can find all the things you need to make it in these tough times.

      Liked by 3 people

      • I always enjoy your farming stories OP.
        Wish I still lived on a farm. So much to do and new things like baby animals to watch.
        I’m so paranoid I don’t want to anywhere around here.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This was the toughest for me, too. 1986 was hard, but we were not mere outs from the World Series. Yes, Mike Scott had been unbelievably tough on the Mets – but even with that there was no guarantee. Here, we twice had multi-run leads heading into the 8th and could not close the deal. And this was our first playoff experience after crossing the desert of 18 seasons. It just felt so unfair.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. That ’79 season had Tom Seaver stating that the Astros would “Drop like a lead pipe” from the division lead. I remember him saying that prophecy.

    Gordie Pladson??? I forgot about him until I looked at the Baseball Reference website and saw his photo. He wore number 34 until Nolan arrived.

    I am trying to remember the name of the opposing left fielder who, during a playoff game during this era, and in the Astrodome, gathered a base hit to him and wound up to make a heroic throw to the infield and… inadvertently threw the ball straight into the ground at his own feet. All on national television. Oh, never mind, I remember. Lonnie Smith of the Phillies!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Somewhere in that 4th game, Gary Woods was on 3rd base with the bases loaded and scored on a Pujols sac fly…..except he left base too early (for no reason), the Phillies protested and the Astros had a 2-0 lead heading into the 8th instead of 3-0 (or more). I will never forget that.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. On they are running a pretend expansion draft for teams in Las Vegas and Portland.
    S0 far a little more than half way through the first round Bryan Abreu was picked as were former Astros Colin Moran and Derek Fisher…..


  6. Since we’re talking about my worst nightmare as an Astros fan, I’m going to go further in that vein.
    I want to name my all- time, least favorite, make-me-gag, modern-Day Astros team. This is my coronavirus, looting, worthless journalistic, Astros team:
    Jon Singleton 1B
    Delino SeShields 2B
    Jonathan Villar SS
    Matt Dominguez 3B
    Preston Wilson LF
    Jordan Shafer CF
    Rick Ankiel RF
    Jason Castro C
    Brady Aiken SP
    Ken Giles CL
    I need a shower just thinking about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • All ‘good’ [horrible?] choices, OP. At 2nd, I guess I would probably give the nod to Kaz Matsui over [beneath?] Delino. And I’d probably put Craig Biggio in the mix for worst possible centerfielder. Great player – not good at all in the outfield. You did not include a DH, but I would vote for either 2017 Carlos Beltran or Dave’s nephew, Tyler White – though the most likely to strike out without ever touching the ball was definitely Chris Carter.

      Worse starting pitcher candidates [for us]: Shawn Chacon? Woody Williams? Jordan Lyles?

      Liked by 1 person

  7. 1980 was terribly painful because it was the first time. Philly had a tough, resilient group. I’m pretty sure two of those hits late off Ryan were of the infield variety. And when Rose coaxed that full count walk, it was over for Ryan and I remember thinking we would not stop the rally until it was too late.

    But time does heal wounds. My toughest one is still game 7 against
    Washington. At least for right now, nothing comes close.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. While I was heart broken after the 1980 Phillies series, in general I was happy with the team because really for the first time since we moved to Houston back in 1965 I was cheering for a team that was truly in contention.
    In 1972 and 1973 they were over .500 but they ended up 10.5 and 17 games respectively. When they were .500 even 1969, 1974 and 1977 they ended up 12, 21 and 17 games back.
    In 1979 and 1980 they finally were playing some games that actually counted in the last month of the season. It felt like we were joining a new exclusive club as fans.


  9. I do have a few questions for my friends on the blog. Is this the type of post y’all like? Would you like me to do others like this? Are there types of post you don’t like? Are there other types of post you would like me to pursue?


  10. Dan, this is a great post! 1980 is a nice memory, even if we didn’t quite reach the prize.

    The one play that sticks out for me in the NLCS was the 4th inning of game 4, when Vern Ruhle had a triple play taken away by the umps. It might not have made a difference in the outcome, but who knows? It gave the Phillies an extra out to play with.

    Liked by 1 person

    • AN, I sure wanted it to be a triple play. I was sitting there at field level right behind the dugout. I had a great view of the play. It was totally inconclusive.
      After a long, long discussion with confounded umps, good ones too, league officals, lengthy arguments from both dugouts and players on the field, a compromise call was made. Even with the enhanced replay technology we’ve got today, there is no proof that Ruhle caught or did not catch the ball to start that play. One of those once in a lifetime baseball head scratchers I’ll always remember.


      • That was one of the craziest plays ever. And it was not the umps fault – you just could not tell. Maybe today with cameras seemingl everywhere they might have picked it up – don’t know.


  11. It’s a great post Dan, but they all are. I read every day but may not join the conversation. It’s not because I’m bored it’s probably because I’m not that familiar with the subject or like Becky says, I’m Just not a stats girl.
    I’m just thrilled you take the time to give us something to think about and I always enjoy the different points of view.
    So you just go ahead and write what ever you can think of. I know it’s not easy with the team in limbo.
    Just know we all appreciate the time you take to entertain us.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Thanks Astro Nut and Sandy (and everyone who stops by to read or to read and comment). I was not fishing for compliments, I just like to get some feedback once in a while, especially if I do something different like this.
    It is hard to critique your own work. There are sometimes when I know it is really good and sometimes when I go bleh. Many times they fall in the middle. So that is why I ask and to find out what the interest level is. I mean if I am going to do this I might as well give some effort to do what y’all like….


    • Dan,

      Please keep doing what you’re doing. I’ve always enjoyed your writing; it can be about a recipe to make matzoh ball soup and it still would come out great

      Liked by 1 person

  13. In response to the Gomez comment by 1OP, I offer up the following link,
    Gomez was the epitome of a hot head out of control. I like to watch YouTube videos of altercations and incidents and when you see Gomez in some of them making a complete ass of himself, I often wonder why Luhnow ever traded for him. What was he thinking? I bet Milwaukee was glad to get rid of him. He never fit into the organization. As for part two of the trade we got Mike “the rat” Fiers. Need I say more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t mention Gomez. I honestly didn’t think of him when naming my All-Time, Least Favorite, Make-Me-Gag, Modern Era, Astros Team.
      The reason I didn’t include him is because his stupidity constantly had my wife and I in stitches. Anyone that dumb just kind-of washes away. I like to refer to him as The Bat Sniffer.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I know there have been some of you wondering how I was doing. No worries…I’m doing fine! I’m working from home full time now, and haven’t been online as much. With everything that’s been going on in the world right now, I’ve been isolating myself from the news as much as possible.

    My freetime hasn’t really been free either. I’ve been a band called Fear 2 Stop for about 19 years now (made up of myself, my wife, our 13 year old daughter, and two friends), and we’ve been working on an album that we literally just finished. I hadn’t really said anything before because since we do experimental electronic dance music (all instrumental) , I didn’t figure it would go over to well here, but figured hey, what the heck. Link’s below. Even if it’s not up your alley, maybe you’d know someone who would dig it. We’ve already started a followup, which is planned to be a mix of electronics and more organic sounds, albeit more experimental; there will be vocals, and the goal is to mix our EDM sound with something akin to Brian Wilson/the Beach Boys’s SMiLE work.

    Thanks Dan for allowing me to do this.

    I hope you all are well. Sorry to worry anybody! I’ll be more active going forward.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for sharing Billy C. Was enjoying it – sitting here doing some work – the first song kind of starts off a little 50’s sci-fi and then the organ work makes me think of the 70’s hit from Timmy Thomas “Why Can’t We Live Together”
      Good job


      • Thank you kindly! The first track “Arrival” was written and recorded entirely by Jaymie; only thing I did was add the beat . It segueing into Animate the way it did was a happy accident. For that one I went for a sci-fi meets Brian Wilson type trip.


      • Thank you !!! New Order was one of my personal influences growing up, along with Brian Wilson , video game music, early Pink Floyd and Depeche Mode, amongst others. Dana listened to more rock oriented material along with those above. Jaymie despite her age in addition to those above and her liking modern rock, is big into the Carpenters (to the point where were recording a cover of Superstar), so we all have a wide range of tastes and I think that shows.

        Everything was home recorded as well


    • Wow, your band is very talented Billy C! Your music sounds similar to New Order (their song Blue Monday plays on the trailer for the new Wonder Woman 1984 movie)


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