Art Howe has been memorialized in film as the Oakland A’s manager in the movie Moneyball. But Howe’s most notable years as a player and his first gig as a manager were in Houston. The 1989 Houston Astros season was Howe’s first go-around as a skipper and his team played competitive baseball, contending into September.
After winning the NL West title in 1986, the Astros declined and barely finished over .500 in 1988. There were no notable offseason moves and no real expectations for a contender in 1989.
What’s more, the division was a good one. Houston was a National League city until 2013 and the divisional alignment prior to 1994 had each league split into just two divisions, an East and a West. Only the first-place finisher could reach the postseason. The Los Angeles Dodgers were not only the NL West’s defining power in the 1980s, they were fresh off of winning the World Series.
The Cincinnati Reds—who along with the Atlanta Braves, were dropped into the West in a tortured display of geography—had been the second-place finisher for four years running under Pete Rose. The San Francisco Giants had won the NL West two years earlier.
Houston was strong at the top of the rotation in 1989. Mike Scott, who had won the Cy Young Award in ’86, was still going strong with his split-fingered fastball. Scott won 20 games with a 3.10 ERA. Jim DeShaies posted 15 more wins and a 2.91 ERA. The bullpen got good work from closer Dave Smith, who saved 25 games and finished with a 2.64 ERA.
Danny Darwin, a former starter turned reliever, put up a sparkling 2.36 ERA while logging 122 innings out of the pen. Juan Agosto provided more good relief work with a sub-3.00 ERA. And no one in the bullpen was better than Larry Andersen. At the age of 36, Andersen worked 87 innings and finished with a 1.54 ERA. It set the stage for Houston to trade him a year later to Boston for a prospect by the name of Jeff Bagwell.
But the Astros had serious problems with rotation depth. Rick Rhoden was 36-years-old and his struggles spelled the end of his career. The same went for 39-year-old Bob Forsch. Jim Clancy made 26 starts and his ERA was up over 5. In an era when starters were expected to go deep into games, the rotation problems in the 3-4-5 spots added up to a staff ERA that only ranked eighth in the 12-team National League.
By rights, the offense should have had the same problems. Playing in the old Astrodome with its vast dimensions made runs hard enough to come by. And the ’89 Astros ranked 11th in the National League for batting average, eighth for doubles and ninth in home runs. Their #5 rankings in walks and stolen bases were nice, but shouldn’t have been enough to cover for the weaknesses. But somehow, Howe made all that add up to ranking fourth in the NL for runs scored.
First baseman Glenn Davis provided the muscle with 34 home runs. Bill Doran at second base, Billy Hatcher in left field and Gerald Young in centerfield didn’t have great numbers, but combined to steal 78 bases. The Astros were hurt by outfielder Kevin Bass missing extensive time in midseason, but that gave 32-year-old Terry Puhl more playing time and Puhl posted a solid .353 on-base percentage.
Someone else who could run was a rookie embarking on a Hall of Fame career. Craig Biggio would later move to second base, but the early part of his career was spent behind the plate. Biggio’s OBP was respectable, at .336. So were his 13 home runs and 21 steals. Ken Caminiti at third base had an MVP award in his future, but was still going through growing pains in 1989.
Houston started slowly and the record was 14-19 in mid-May. They went into Wrigley Field to face the eventual NL East champion Chicago Cubs and a three-game sweep triggered some improved play. By Memorial Day, the Astros were at .500 and while they were in fifth place, that was only three games off the pace in a jammed NL West.
After sweeping a competitive St. Louis Cardinals team out of the holiday, Houston welcomed Los Angeles in for a four-game set to open the month of June. A regular season series in early summer doesn’t often end up being described as “epic”, but that’s exactly what this one was, and it lifted the Astros to another level.
DeShaies pitched well in Thursday night’s opener and won 7-2, helped by two hits and two runs scored from Hatcher at the top of the order. Then things got interesting.
Friday night’s game was scoreless in the bottom of the seventh. Puhl beat out an infield hit with two outs and a runner on second. A throwing error produced the only run Scott would need to complete the 1-0 win.
The Saturday night affair was 4-4 after six innings. Little did anyone know, it was going to be a long time before anyone scored again. The bullpens were emptied. Starters came on in relief. Clancy threw five shutout innings for the Astros. The game stretched to the 22nd inning, past 2 AM local time and setting a record for the longest night game ever played. In the bottom of the 22nd, Doran singled and moved up to second on a ground ball out. With two outs, shortstop Rafael Ramirez finally ended it with an RBI single for the 5-4 win.
Sunday’s early afternoon start meant a quick turnaround. When Houston fell behind 6-0, you had to figure there was just a letdown after the long night and, with three wins already in the bag, maybe they would mail this one in. But you would have figured wrong. The Astros got five runs back in the fifth, then finally tied it in the ninth. Another extra-inning affair was at hand and this one went 13 innings. Scott had to come out of the bullpen. He not only won it, but delivered the sac fly that produced the winning run.
The Astros went on to win six of their next seven and nudged into first place by a game. A trip out west cooled Houston down. The bats went quiet when they were swept by L.A. and San Francisco—although the Astros and Dodgers did play one more extra-inning game for the folks in SoCal. But even with that skid, Houston still reached the All-Star break with a record of 49-38, good for second place and within two games of frontrunning San Francisco.
The Astros were still just two games out when the Giants came to the Astrodome at the end of July. After dropping Friday night’s opener 3-2, the Houston bats woke up. On Saturday afternoon, Biggio, Davis and Caminiti combined for eight hits and each homered. Mark Portugal tossed a complete-game three-hitter to win 8-1. On Sunday, Scott won his 17th game when the offense broke open a 2-2 tie with four runs in the seventh.
There were two months to play and Houston was squarely in the race. The Dodgers had fallen hard since the June dramatics in Houston. The Reds were going through a miserable year with Rose’s gambling coming to light. San Diego was competitive, but off the pace. Houston and San Francisco were poised to battle this one out.
But the road was not kind to the Astros. They went 3-7, including losing two of three on the return trip against the Giants. An offensive outburst against the Cubs—22 runs in three games—led to another Wrigley sweep and Houston was still within two games of the lead on August 20. But then they lost nine of twelve, including being swept by the mediocre Pittsburgh Pirates. By Labor Day, the Astros were still 72-64 and still in second place, but they were now six games back of the Giants.
There were six head-to-head games with San Francisco in September, but Houston could only manage a split. That matched what the Astros did everywhere else, playing .500 baseball through the end of the season. The pennant bid came up short. The Giants won the division, while the Padres bolted past Houston into second place. The Astros’ final record was 86-76.
That was still modest improvement. It was tied for fifth-best in the National League, meaning by the more lenient standards of today, Houston would have been right on the playoff bubble. By reasonable standards, Howe’s managerial debut was a success.
Less successful is the fact that this was Howe’s high point, at least in Houston. The ensuing three seasons saw one 85-win campaign and two other losing ones. The manager would have to wait until he got to Oakland to reach the postseason. The Astros had to wait until realignment and the creation of the NL Central, which they won for the first time in 1997.