Let’s face facts. The old saying goes that you don’t want to see how the sausage is made. On the other hand, pro sports and, in this case, Astros baseball, is sausage making on a very public forum. Every slump, bone head play, bone head lineup, bad outing, blown save, a fielding error, bad pitching switch, strikeout and loss are all in high definition glory (or ignominy).
That goes for chunks of the Astros 2021 season, and frankly, any season as even very good teams fail in 55-70 games every season. As the Astros limped towards the finish line, allowing an 8 game lead with 10 games to go, to slide to a 3.5 game lead with 5 to go, all that stomach-churning sausage making was on full view of the world. But they righted their ship in taking 2 out of 3 from the best team in the AL, the Tampa Bay Rays (am I really typing that?) and clinched their division with three games to spare.
Folks have been pretty down on this version of the Astros for making things more challenging than they should have with the talent and stats they possess. But this is all prelude, and the key is to get into the playoffs period. This is a town and a team that used to be proud to make the playoffs no matter how it happened.
Here’s just a reminder of the modest beginnings of the Astros’ storied and not so storied history. The Colt .45s / Astros went their first 18 seasons without reaching the playoffs. In 1980, they had the best team in their history, but they did not waltz into the playoffs. They had a three-game lead with three games left in the season. Unfortunately, the three-game lead was over the team they had to face in that last series on the road, the LA Dodgers. Their lead oozed away in three tortuous one-run losses. In the first game, a one-run lead in the 9th inning went away, with the critical play being some schmo named Dusty Baker reaching base (and moving the tying run into scoring position) on an error. A Joe Ferguson home run in the 10th walked it off. They lost the second game 2-1 as Jerry Reuss spun a complete game 7 hitter, stranding two runners in the 9th. In the third game, the Astros got up 3-0 early, but with Vern Ruhle only pitching two innings, the relief corps of Joaquin Andujar, Joe Sambito and Frank LaCorte, slowly yacked up the lead, and the Dodgers won 4-3 setting up a one game playoff.
The baseball gods finally smiled on the Astros in the one-game playoff in LaLa land. Art Howe‘s three hits, including a home run and 4 RBIs, led the offense, and Joe Niekro pitched a complete game, allowing one unearned run as that Astros entered the playoffs with a 7-1 drubbing of Dodger Blue.
Astro fans did not care how the team got there in 1980, just that they got there.
The entry into the 1981 playoffs was even more bizarre as a strike interrupted the season. The Cincinnati Reds won the most games in baseball (66) in that shortened season – and did not make the playoffs. The Dodgers won the NL West first half of the season, where the Reds finished 1/2 game behind them, having played one less game, and the Astros won the second half of the season, two games ahead of the Reds.
Astro fans did not care how the team made the playoffs in 1981, though we were bummed out by the Astros getting up 2-0 on the Dodgers in the West division playoffs and scoring two runs in the last three games to go home.
There were other exciting entries to the postseason for the Astros over the years…
- 1997 – They somehow won the Central Division by 5 games with an 84-78 record while the 88-74 Dodgers stayed home in the West
- 2001 – They took the Central Division in a tiebreaker over the Cards
- 2004 – They wobbled around for half the season and then roared back to sneak into the Wild Card spot by one game over the Giants
- 2005 – They were declared dead before roaring back again to slide into the Wild Card spot by one game over the Phillies and then moving on to their first World Series appearance
- 2020 – And, of course, the extended playoff roster of 8 teams allowed them to enter the playoffs with a 29-31 record and get within one game of the World Series
The point here is that we can wish for a better, smoother entry into the playoffs, but in the end, we need to ignore how those sausages are made and concentrate on the final product.
OK, now on to more sausage-making in the playoffs.