Major league baseball came to the city of Houston in 1962 and for the ensuing seventeen years it was mostly subpar. The franchise only had two winning seasons, never won more than 84 games and never seriously contended. The 1979 Houston Astros changed all that, leading the old NL West for much of the year, competing until the final weekend and winning 89 games, continuing a pattern of improvement under fourth-year manager Bill Virdon.
It was all about pitching for these Astros. They were second in the National League in ERA with the rotation anchored by 18-game winner J.R. Richard and 21-game winning knuckleballer Joe Niekro. The two aces combined to make 76 starts, or nearly half of the team’s total games.
The rotation was balanced out by Ken Forsch, Rick Williams and Joaquin Andujar, all of whom were effective starters with ERAs in the low 3s. Williams and Andujar also did considerable work out of the bullpen where they joined Joe Sambito, who saved 21 games (at a time when save totals weren’t nearly as high as they are today) with a 1.77 ERA.
Houston’s offense was anemic and playing in the vast expanse of the old Astrodome didn’t help. They were last in the National League in runs scored and hit only 49 home runs. Leftfielder Jose Cruz went deep nine times—and he was the team leader in home runs. Nor did anyone bat .300 and no one used walks or doubles to spruce up their on-base percentage or slugging percentage.
What Houston could do was run. They stole 190 bases and led the league. Third baseman Enos Cabell, first baseman Cesar Cedeno and centerfielder Terry Puhl joined Cruz in swiping 30-plus bags. Rightfielder Jeffrey Leonard stole 23 more. The Astros were young—eight everyday players under the age of 30—they were fast and they used that to their advantage.
A fast 12-4 start was highlighted by a three-game home sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team that would eventually win the World Series. All three were decided by one run, all were won late and Andujar picked up two of the victories in relief. The Astros led the NL West (in the pre-1993 two-division alignment this included the Dodgers, Reds, Padres, Giants and Braves) by four games in early May.
Losing three of four in Cincinnati pulled Houston back to earth and started a string where Houston lost 10 of 14, and they slipped a half-game back of the Reds by Memorial Day. San Francisco and Los Angeles, the two-time defending NL champs, were packed in the middle of a four-team race.
The Astros got hot as summer arrived. They swept the Reds at home and then did the same to the Montreal Expos, who would push Pittsburgh to the season’s final week in the NL East. Houston nudged into first place, then delivered home sweeps of bad teams in the Mets and Padres. The lead in the NL West stretched to six games.
Then Houston won the first six games of a road trip and took the first two of a three-game set in Cincinnati. The lead was soaring and peaked at 10 ½ games on the Fourth of July. A loss in the finale to the Reds was quickly followed by a seven-game losing streak, but the Astros reached the All-Star break at 54-40 and were plus-six on the Reds and up 8 ½ on the Giants. The collapse of the Dodgers was the surprise of the division and Los Angeles was in last place.
The poor play leading into the break resumed after the All-Star game. Houston lost four straight in Pittsburgh, continued to slump and though the Astros posted a respectable 15-11 record, the Reds were sizzling and came all the way back. Even without the benefit of head-to-head games, as both teams played Eastern Division opponents, Cincinnati was within a half-game on Labor Day in it was now clearly a two-team race. On September 11, the Astros went to old Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati for a two-game set.
Rafael Landestoy was one of Houston’s better offensive threats, with a .338 on-base percentage. The second baseman racked up five hits in the Wednesday night opener and the Astros led 7-6 in the seventh inning. But Sambito gave up consecutive home runs and they ended up losing 9-8. One day later Niekro was knocked out by the fourth inning and lost 7-4. The pitching had come undone in the biggest series of the year and Houston slipped 2 ½ games back.
The Astros were able to stop the bleeding and the deficit was still 2 ½ when the Reds came to the Astrodome on the season’s penultimate weekend. Houston definitely needed to win the series and would probably need to sweep.
Friday’s opener went long into the night, tied 2-2 in the 13th inning. Houston had a reserve catcher who would one day make a name for himself as a manager—Bruce Bochy, who hit a two-out RBI single to win the game. On Saturday, Niekro was sharp, making up for his previous outing against the Reds and the 4-1 win cut the margin to a half-game and made the Sunday finale a battle for first place.
Vern Ruhle was a young starter who would be a big part of what this team would accomplish over the next couple years. But in this game, tied 1-1 in the fourth, Ruhle was knocked off the mound with five runs. The Astros lost 7-1.
Winning the series had kept them alive, but failing to sweep meant an uphill climb in a final week where both teams would play weak competition. Houston trailed by 2 ½ games going into the final weekend in Los Angeles. The Astros took the field on Friday knowing that the Reds had already beaten Atlanta. Houston lost and the race was over.
There was still no denying the strides the 1979 Houston Astros had made, including their first taste of pennant-race baseball. This core group came back in 1980 and won the NL West. In 1981 they made the expanded playoffs that came about due to the midseason players’ strike. They never reached the World Series, but they gave Houston something the city had previously not seen and that’s good baseball.