October baseball was a long time coming for the city of Houston. The Astros were born in 1962 and for the next fourteen years had just two winning seasons. Bill Virdon took over as manager late in 1975, got them to the .500 level soon after and in 1979, they chased the Cincinnati Reds to the final weekend of the season. The 1980 Houston Astros took the next step and won the old NL West—but not before giving the fan base collective heart failure before it was over.
Houston did it in 1980 with pitching. The vast expanse of the old Astrodome required that the run prevention rather than run scoring be the focus, and the Astros led the National League in ERA. Joe Niekro won 20 games, floating his knuckleball and logging 256 innings. Ken Forsch didn’t get much luck, with a 12-13 record, but he finished with a 3.20 ERA. Vern Ruhle wasn’t a workhorse, with 159 innings, but he won 12 games with a 2.37 ERA.
The Astros made a key addition on the free agent market prior to the season signing Nolan Ryan. The lack of run support showed up in Ryan’s 11-10 record, but his ERA was 3.35 and he worked 233 innings.
Virdon’s relief corps was even better. A lefty-righty tandem of Joe Sambito and Dave Smith was lights out at the end of games, Frank Lacorte was a good middle reliever and Joaquin Andujar provided versatility, starting 14 games, relieving in 21 more and finishing with a 3.91 ERA.
It was enough to carry an offense that ranked seventh in the National League. There was a serious dearth of power. Terry Puhl’s 13 home runs led the team. Puhl also had a solid .357 on-base percentage. Cesar Cedeno, the speedy centerfielder, had a good stat line of .389 OBP/.465 slugging percentage and his 48 steals were the most in the lineup. Jose Cruz posted a .360 OBP, while Art Howe—the future manager of the Moneyball Oakland A’s—put a .350 on-base percentage.
Houston’s success, as shown in these numbers, was the ability to draw walks and no one epitomized that better than another veteran free agent acquisition. Joe Morgan was brought over from Cincinnati, and while the 36-year-old only hit .243, he drew 93 walks and ended up with an OBP of .367. It’s more than a little ironic that in future years as an ESPN analyst, Morgan would become one of the most vocal critics of the Moneyball statistical evaluations that would have vindicated him in 1980.
But overshadowing all of this was the story of J.R. Richard, the team’s #1 starter coming into the year. Richard was a rising star, one of the best pitchers in all of baseball and in his first 17 starts of 1980, he was 10-4 with 1.90, a year that had Cy Young Award written all over it.
Then, at the end of July, Richard started feeling numbness in his hands. He was placed on the disabled list. He still participated in some pregame warmups and on July 30, he collapsed. It was a stroke, and while Richard survived, his major league career was suddenly over.
It was a tragedy on every level—most importantly the humanitarian, as Richard would subsequently go through two divorces and end up destitute. On the less important level, a career that looked to have Cooperstown written all over it was suddenly over.
With Richard in the rotation, Houston had maintained a steady lead in the NL West through the early summer. They started the season modestly, at 21-18, and trailed the Los Angeles Dodgers by 3 ½ games, with Cincinnati also in the race. Then a 19-5 stretch in late May and early June built up a lead, before the Astros went 5-10 in their last fifteen games prior to the All-Star break. They reached the midway point tied for first with the Dodgers and up three games on the Reds.
Without Richard, Houston lost seven of ten in August, but then righted the ship and won ten straight games. The Astros up-and-down nature all evened out, and by Labor Day, the race was more or less the same as it has been at the break—Houston was plus-one on the Dodgers and still up three on the Reds.
Los Angeles got hot in the first week of September and nudged out to a two-game lead, just in time to show up at the Astrodome for a two-game series. Houston won the opener, scoring twice in the seventh inning to break a 3-3 tie. The second game was a back-and-forth affair that was also tied 3-3, this time going into extra innings. Each team scored twice in the 11th. Finally, Cruz homered in the 12th and the Astros were back in a tie for first.
The race continued to mostly hold steady and with a week and a half left, Houston was up a game, with Cincinnati still clinging at three games out. The Astros would play the Reds at home in the penultimate weekend of the season, and then be at Los Angeles for the closing weekend. If Houston was going to get that first postseason trip, they were going to earn it.
Ruhle matched up with Cincinnati veteran and future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, and Ruhle threw a complete-game four-hitter to win a 2-0 pitchers duel. Another 2-0 win came on Saturday, with Niekro and Smith combining on a four-hitter. They led the finale 5-4, before Andujar got hit in middle relief and the Reds salvaged a game. But after Houston came out of this series and promptly swept Atlanta, the Reds were finished.
The sweep of the Braves had moved Houston out to a three-game lead, clinching a tie for first. The provision for a one-game playoff had it being in Los Angeles, so the Astros had, in effect, four chances to clinch in LA. No one thought they would need all of them, or how many times they would get close to the prize before being pushed back.
Houston was three outs away on Friday night, as Forsch was outdueling Dodger vet Don Sutton and led 2-1. Then an error by Morgan of all people opened the door to the game-tying run and Los Angeles won it the same inning on a home run by catcher Joe Ferguson. On Saturday, Ryan lost a tough 2-1 pitchers’ duel. The collars were feeling tighter in Houston.
The Astros led 3-0 after four innings on Sunday and were still hanging on 3-2 in the eighth. Then Howe committed an error, and Dodger third baseman Ron Cey homered. Three straight one-run losses had forced the Monday playoff.
Houston had Niekro in reserve though, while Los Angeles had to fire every bullet they had in their pitching staff. Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda was left with Dave Goltz, once a top pitcher for the Minnesota Twins, but no longer effective.
The Dodger defense couldn’t afford mistakes and they made two early errors, letting Houston get a 2-0 lead in the first and relieve some of the pressure. Howe hit a two-out, two-run homer in the third to make it 4-0. The third baseman finished with three hits and four RBIs, and the score 7-1 after four innings. That’s where it ended, as Niekro stayed locked in and Houston had finally clinched.
Houston met the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League Championship Series and the result was one of the great postseason series ever played. The Astros got within six outs of the pennant on two straight days, but couldn’t clinch. In fairness, Houston consistently rallied back after blown leads, making this series so compelling. But Philadelphia won the then-best-of-five series in five games.
The Astros never did reach the World Series with this group of players. They made the postseason again the following year, when baseball introduced the Division Series for the first time, a temporary adjustment to deal with a players’ strike that interrupted the year midseason. But they didn’t get back to October after that until 1986, a year they again lost a dramatic NLCS, this time to the New York Mets.
In 2005, the people of Houston finally celebrated a pennant. When the long-sought World Series title arrived, it was 2017 and Houston had relocated to the American League.