After making the postseason in 1980 and 1981, the Astros had slipped into mediocrity. Over the next four years they ranged between 77-85 and 85-77, the very definition of being predictably average. The 1986 Houston Astros had a new manager in Hal Lanier and a new result as they won the NL West.
This was a team built on pitching, especially in the days when the vast expanse of the Astrodome was what they called home. Mike Scott had an amazing year. The 31-year-old went to the mound 37 times, a great display of workmanship in of itself. And with a split-fingered fastball that was nearly impossible to hit, Scott posted a 2.22 ERA, won 18 games and took home the Cy Young Award.
Bob Knepper, a 38-year-old lefty, still had gas in the tank, as he made 38 starts and won 17 games with a 3.14 ERA. Nolan Ryan took the ball thirty times and the 39-year-old finished with a 3.34 ERA.
With Scott at the top, and quality vets in Knepper and Ryan, the Astros had the foundation for a good pitching staff. And some terrific moves by the front office, starting in the offseason and continuing through the summer of 1986, made it even better.
Houston parted ways with their great knuckleballer Joe Niekro, sending him to the Yankees in exchange for 25-year-old Jim DeShaies. While Niekro faded in the Bronx, DeShaies went 12-5 with a 3.25 ERA. In late May and early June, the Astros strengthened the bullpen with Larry Anderson and Aurelio Lopez, who combined to work over 140 innings. And on August 15, the rotation was made even better with the pickup of Danny Darwin, who made eight starts for the Astros and had a 2.32 ERA.
We haven’t even gotten to the back end of the bullpen, where Dave Smith saved 33 games with a 2.73 ERA. And 22-year-old Charlie Kerfeld worked over 90 innings, won 11 games and posted a 2.59 ERA. It all added up to the second-best ERA in the National League and only the fact that the New York Mets staff was turning in a historically great season kept Houston from being the best.
The offense was limited by the Astrodome dimensions and Houston rarely had great power teams in those years. But they had a terrific first baseman in Glenn Davis, who hit 31 home runs, drove in 101 runs and anchored a lineup otherwise keyed by contact hitters and base stealers.
Rightfielder Kevin Bass posted a stat line of .357 on-base percentage/.486 slugging percentage and also stole 22 bases. Third baseman Denny Walling’s stat line was .367/.479. Billy Hatcher, acquired in the offseason in another good deal where the club gave up Jerry Mumphrey, stole 38 bases. Second baseman Billy Doran had a solid .368 OBP and swiped 42 bases.
The everyday lineup was rounded with veterans who were past-prime, ranging from catcher Alan Ashby to utility infielder Phil Garner. The Astros only ranked eighth in the National League in runs scored, but with their pitching, it was enough to win.
Houston got off to a strong 13-6 start against their NL West rivals (prior to the expansion of 1993 and the realignment of 1994, the Astros, Braves and Reds were in the West along with the Dodgers, Giants, Padres). They played .500 ball in May and by Memorial Day were sitting at 23-18, tied with San Francisco for the division lead and every team except Cincinnati within 2 ½ games.
Mediocre baseball in June followed, and the lowlight was losing four straight in San Francisco where the Astros could only muster six runs in four games. It wasted a good run of pitching, as Houston only gave up twelve runs in that series. Even so, the Astros were only a game back of the Giants at the All-Star break. The Padres were three games out and the defending NL West champion Dodgers were now in last place, eight games out. It was right after the All-Star break that a magical week shifted the divisional tide decisively toward Houston.
It didn’t start the way. They lost 13-2 to the Mets on the Thursday that opened the second half, before Knepper stopped the bleeding with a 3-0 shutout. Then the Astros won five straight games in walkoff fashion.
On Saturday, leading the Mets 4-0 in the ninth, Houston coughed up four runs. Light-hitting Craig Reynolds bailed them out with two-out solo home run in the ninth. On Sunday, trailing New York 5-4 in the eighth, the Astros scored four times to take the lead. Then they gave up three in the ninth. The game went to the 15th inning, still tied 8-8. Doran singled, was bunted up and scored the game-winner.
It wasn’t the last time the Astros and Mets would play amazing, back-and-forth baseball. And the Houston Walkoff Run was just getting started.
They hosted the Montreal Expos and led 5-3 in the seventh, before giving up three runs and ultimately trailing 7-6 in the ninth. Montreal’s excellent closer, Jeff Reardon, was on the mound. Hatcher started the inning with a single and stole second. Walling drew a walk and Davis tied it up with a single. Jose Cruz won the game with a walkoff single,
The next night, after nine innings of scoreless baseball, Davis led off the bottom of the tenth with a home run. In the finale, the Astros led a 3-0 lead in the eighth slip away and the game went to the 11th inning tied 3-3. Shortstop Dickie Thon drew a leadoff walk, was bunted up and scored on a base hit by veteran backup Davey Lopes.
Houston’s bullpen hadn’t exactly been inspiring in this stretch, but the fortitude spoke volumes. It set the stage for a strong run through late summer and on Labor Day, the Astros were in command of the race plus-seven on the now-hot Reds and eight games ahead of the Giants.
And the team kept their foot on the gas to open September, winning seven of eight and extending the lead to ten games. The Reds wouldn’t go quietly and trimmed the lead back to seven, in time for a three-game set in Cincinnati starting on September 16. If the Astros even won one game, they would likely put it away and winning the series would all but seal it.
Houston did one better. They held a 3-1 lead in the opener and then broke it open in the seventh with three straight singles that started a three-run rally. Anderson turned in 3 2/3 innings of shutout relief and the final was 6-1. An almost identical script played out on Wednesday night. Leading 2-1 in the eighth, the Astros scored four times, with Cruz’s three-run shot being the killer blow. Darwin threw a complete-game five-hitter.
And the coup de grace came on Thursday. Houston jumped Cincy starter Tom Browning quickly with three runs in the first, an RBI double from Davis getting it rolling. Matt Keough gave Lanier six serviceable innings and Lopez came on to throw three innings of one-hit shutout ball in relief. The final was 5-3 and the NL West race was all but over.
There was still the matter of formally clinching and even though the race was anticlimactic, the clinching moment was anything but. Scott took the mound at home against San Francisco and any doubt about who would win the Cy Young Award was wiped away. He threw a no-hitter. Walling homered in the fifth, Cruz added a key two-out RBI single in the seventh and the 2-0 win gave the city two reasons to celebrate.
Houston went on to play one of the great NLCS battles of all time against New York. Scott was dominant, winning Games 1 & 4 and being in the Mets’ heads so thoroughly, that New York freely admitted they wanted no part of a third showdown in a Game 7. The Astros almost forced it, but let a late lead slip in Game 6 and ultimately losing a 16-inning marathon that gave the pennant to the Mets.
The crushing ending meant the end of what was a short run for these Astros. The age of the pitching staff meant that this wasn’t a rising young team, and they didn’t get back to the playoffs until a new cast of players, led by Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman got them there in 1997. But the 1986 Houston Astros were fun while they lasted.