The 1981 Houston Astros were coming off a season in which the franchise won their first division title and then played one of the great NLCS battles of all time before losing to the Philadelphia Phillies. The Astros got great pitching to make it back to the postseason in 1981, with no small help from a well-timed players’ strike and resulting alteration of the playoff system.
Houston played in the vast Astrodome at this time, and their team was built for it, starting with pitching. They led the National League in ERA, and no one was better than 34-year-old Nolan Ryan. The veteran flamethrower went 11-5 with a 1.69 ERA. On the other end of the velocity spectrum was 36-year-old knuckleballer Joe Niekro, who posted a 2.82 ERA.
The Astros made a surprising number of personnel changes for a team coming off its best year, and two of them were in the starting rotation. The signed 36-year-old starting pitcher Don Sutton in free agency, taking him away from the rival Los Angeles Dodgers, and Sutton won 11 games with a 2.69 ERA. The Astros then acquired lefty Bob Knepper from the San Francisco Giants in a deal that sent third baseman Enos Cabell west. Knepper finished 9-5 with a 2.18 ERA.
Houston made room for the new arms by trading veteran righty Ken Forsch to the California Angels for infielder Dickie Thon. The Astros also parted ways with veteran second baseman Joe Morgan and dealt a young starting pitcher Joaquin Andujar to the St. Louis Cardinals for centerfielder Tony Scott.
The move worked in 1981, as Scott finished with a .338 on-base percentage, but Andujar would be a World Series hero one year later. The flurry of moves, both off-season and in-season, was completed when Houston added second baseman Phil Garner.
Offensively, the Astros had problems, finishing ninth in the 12-team National League in runs scored. Third baseman Art Howe finished with .365 on-base percentage, and catcher Alan Ashby was at .356. Denny Walling in rightfield, along with Scott, were reasonably steady at getting on base, but no one hit for power.
Houston dug themselves a big hole right out of the gate, losing 12 of their first 15 games and trailing by nine games in the NL West before anyone was even settled into the season. Under the steady guidance of manager Bill Virdon, they began to play better and went 25-17 in the games leading up to the strike of June 12, but still trailed the first-place Dodgers by 8 ½.
Not only did the strike intervene, but fate did too, offering second chances when play resumed in August. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn declared the Dodgers, along with the three other first-place teams (NY Yankees, Oakland A’s, Philadelphia Phillies) to be “first-half champions” and therefore in the playoffs. Everyone would start fresh and the “second half champions” would then advance to play the first-half winners in the Division Series, a concept never before seen in major league baseball.
It was called a split-season format and that’s basically accurate, but there’s one significant caveat—in a true split-season, if the same team wins both halves, they simply win the division and advance directly to the League Championship Series. Presumably to appease television, Kuhn declared that this would not be an opportunity for the first-half winners. Even if the same team won both halves, the only reward would be one extra home game in the Division Series.
So the change in format not only allowed the Astros—and 22 other teams—to reset their seasons, it also all but removed their toughest rival, in this case the Dodgers, from the equation. If Los Angeles won the second half, the team that finished second in the second-half would advance.
Houston went 13-8 to begin the second half and entered September a half-game ahead of the Giants, and 2 ½ ahead of the Cincinnati Reds. The Astros then went 5-2 on a West Coast trip that included a stop in San Francisco.
When the Astros returned home, they played their first home series of the season with the Phillies. The two teams picked up where they left off in the 1980 NLCS, with two games of the four-game set going ten innings and another being decided by one run. This time though, Houston won all four.
In the season’s final week, Houston went to Cincinnati for a two-game set on Wednesday and Thursday. The Astros led the Reds by a game and a half, with the Giants having slid to 3 ½ back and barely hanging on. Cincinnati righthander Mario Soto, with one of the best changeups of his time, stopped Houston 5-2 and set up a Thursday game that would be for first place.
Ryan took the ball for the Astros and took matters into his own hand. He threw a complete game and had two hits at the plate. The bottom of the order did the damage for Houston, a Howe and Craig Reynolds, batting seventh and eighth, also had two hits apiece. The Astros led 3-1 after eight and then blew it open with five runs in the ninth.
Houston went to Los Angeles for the final series of the year. In 1980, the Astros arrived in Los Angeles needing to win one time in four to clinch the NL West. It took all four games to get the win. This trip to Dodger Stadium didn’t go a whole lot better.
On Friday night, Sutton took the mound, but he left after two innings with a patellar fracture that ended his season. The Astros lost 6-1, but they got a break when the Reds lost in Atlanta 11-5. On Saturday, the Astros, with a chance to clinch, again lost 7-2, this time Niekro being chased after four. Fortunately, Astros fans didn’t have to sweat it out, as the Reds again lost in Atlanta and the race was over.
Houston opened the Division Series at home against Los Angeles, and the Astros won two exciting, low-scoring games to move themselves to the brink of another NLCS. No team had ever won the first two games of a best-of-five series and then lost.
Unfortunately for Houston, history was going to be made. They went to Los Angeles, and the horrible record of elimination opportunities in Dodger Stadium continued—Houston lost three straight and the season was over.
The season marked the end of a three-year run of good teams in Houston. The lineup and the rotation was aging and the Astros took a step back. But they would also return in short order, coming back to the top of the NL West in 1986, before losing a gutwrenching NLCS to the New York Mets.
Not until 2005, did the franchise finally reward the fan base with a trip to the World Series, where they lost to the Chicago White Sox. The Houston Astros have since relocated to the American League, and in 2017 finally won their first World Series title.