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.