The 1981 season was one of the worst for baseball labor relations, especially with its affect on baseball’s relations with the fans. The walkout back in 1972 had knocked out an average of three games per team that year… a pittance. The 1973 and 1976 lockouts of players and the player walkout in 1980 all occurred during spring training and were resolved before the seasons started.
But in 1981, the owners and the players could not agree on the meaning of “free agent” as the players thought that meant that a player could freely move to another team after his contract ran out and the owners thought there needed to be onerous compensation returned to the initial team tied to that movement. The players walked out on strike on June 11th and it was not resolved until two months later on August 10th.
The 1981 season had now been ripped into three almost, but not quite even thirds….pre-strike, wiped out by strike and post strike. The owners decided to try and make up for some of their lost income by adding a divisional round to the playoffs as a one-off. Divisional rounds would not be added permanently until 1995, after the 1994 work stoppage wiped out those playoffs.
Figuring out, who would play in the divisional rounds ended up being a headache. After a couple iterations they decided that whoever won the first half (pre-strike) in a division would play whoever won the second half (post-strike). If the same team won both halves, they would play the team that came in second place in the second half of the season. This made a mess of things as the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds had the best overall records in the NL, but came in 2nd in both halves in the NL East and NL West respectively and missed the playoffs. Instead the Phillies played the Expos and the Dodgers played the Astros in the divisional round.
So how did the Astros get there? First of all they had made some tweaks to their 1980 team that had come within a few outs of the World Series.
- Owner John McMullen fired GM Tal Smith, who had molded the 1980 playoff team and replaced him with Al Rosen from the Yanks.
- Ken Forsch was traded to the Angels for Dickie Thon (who would play part time, mostly at 2nd base).
- The Astros needed to fill in behind Forsch and JR Richard after his stroke in 1980. They traded Enos Cabell to the Giants for LHP Bob Knepper.
- They signed veteran RHP Don Sutton as a free agent.
- They also released 2B Joe Morgan
- They moved 1B Art Howe across the diamond to take Cabell’s spot at 3B.
- They moved Cesar Cedeno, who had been battling injuries, in to 1B in place of Howe.
- A few days before the strike they picked up CF Tony Scott from the Cards for Joaquin Andujar.
- A few weeks after the strike they picked up IF (and future Astros manager) Phil Garner from the Pittsburgh Pirates for Johnny Ray. Note: I don’t think this was “The Little White Cloud That Cried” singer….but I could be wrong.
This team was a little worse at bat than the mediocre hitting team from 1980 as they came in 9th in runs scored and 11th in HRs in the NL. Cedeno (.271 BA/.321 OBP/.704 OPS slash), Terry Puhl (.251/.315/.670) and Jose Cruz (.267/.319/.745) were all down a notch from 1980, Alan Ashby (.271/.356/.725) was improved and Art Howe (.296/.365/.770) continued his solid contributions.
The pitching again was excellent as the staff led the NL in a number of categories such as 2.66 ERA, 13 shutouts, most strikeouts, least walks and least home runs. Their 5 starters all had ERAs under 3.00 – Nolan Ryan (11-5, 1.69 ERA), Knepper (9-5, 2.18 ERA), Sutton (11-9, 2.61 ERA), Joe Niekro (9-9, 2.82 ERA), and Vern Ruhle (4-6, 2.91 ERA). The bullpen was again led by Joe Sambito (5-5, 10 sv, 1.84 ERA), Dave Smith (5-3, 8 sv, 2.76 ERA) and Frank LaCorte (4-2, 5 sv, 3.64 ERA), but it was slim pickings after that. Amazingly, the Astros only used 12 pitchers all year (granted it was a 110 game season….but still).
The Astros dug a 3-12 hole to start the season and in April they were shutout 4 times and 4 other times only scored 1 run. They dug all the way out to 28-25, but then lost he last 4 games before the strike and finished the first half at 28-29 and 3rd place in the NL West. In the second half, they played very well including throwing 6 shutouts in September and they finished the second half at 33-20 and 1.5 games ahead of the luckless Reds. They would move on to play the Dodgers in the divisional.
Game 1 against the Dodgers in Houston was a Nolan Ryan – Fernando Valenzuela pitcher’s duel as Tony Scott knocked in Terry Puhl for the first run in the 6th and the Dodgers tied it with a Steve Garvey solo shot in the 7th inning. Nolan gave up only the one run on two hits through 9 and with two outs in the bottom of the 9th, Craig Reynolds sliced a single to center off Dave Stewart and Ashby followed with a dramatic walk-off homer down the line to take the first game 3-1.
The 2nd game in Houston featured more hitting and less scoring, and Joe Niekro, Dave Smith and Joe Sambito allowed the Astros to head to the bottom of the 11th tied 0-0. Phil Garner and Tony Scott both singled leading off the 11th and the Astros had runners at 1st and 3rd. But Terry Forster and Tom Niedenfuer sandwiched outs around an intentional walk, before Denny Walling ended it with a two out walk-off single, 1-0.
Moving back to Los Angeles with the Astros just one win away from taking the series, the Dodgers “exploded” for 3 runs in the first against Bob Knepper and added 3 more in the 8th off Sambito as they cake walked to a 6-1 win behind Burt Hooton.
In Game 4 Vern Ruhle pitched very well, allowing 2 runs on 4 hits, but Valenzuela pitching on 3 days rest was better. The Astros did rally for a run in the ninth behind Puhl’s double and Scott’s two out single, but Jose Cruz popped up to end it 2-1 Dodgers.
Game 5 featured a Nolan Ryan / Jerry Reuss matchup, which was 0-0 heading in to the 6th. The Dodgers scored 3 runs (2 earned) on a walk, 3 singles and an error. They added a run off Dave Smith in the 7th and that was all she wrote. The Astros best shot was probably in the 6th where the Astros put their first three hitters on, but were short circuited by Tony Scott’s caught stealing.
As good as the Astros’ pitched in this series, they lost because of pitiful hitting. If you had told them they had a shot at winning a 5 game series where they scored 6 total runs, I’m sure they would have wondered how. Their collective slash was .179 BA/ .240 OBP/ .475 OPS with only 3 doubles and 2 HRs.
The Astros suffered through 3 games where they had a shot to end the series in their favor and fell short. It would be five more seasons before they had their next shot at the elusive ring.