By the end of July Roy Oswalt might be the Astros' all-time win leader (he is currently three behind Joe Niekro who had 144), or he might be pitching for another team. It seems like a fitting time to celebrate his accomplishments to date (since we have little else to celebrate). Before Oswalt's next start I challenge someone else to recount their favourite moment/start by the Wizard, until he reaches Niekro, or is no longer an Astro. Here is mine.
2004 was a right of passage for me as an Astro fan. MLB.TV turned me from a casual baseball follower 4,000 miles away to a die-hard fan, who joined innumerable fora (I believe that is the plural of forum), who gave his opinion on every conceivable matter related to the Astros. Cubs fans would periodically invade to troll us about something or other, either to rag on the team or to convince us that some former player had passed away, or to deride our signing of Carlos Beltran as a hopeless gambit. I would sit up until 4am every night, content in the knowledge that the Astros would win. During the 36-10 stretch it certainly felt like that anyway.
Many images still stick with me from the regular season as if they happened yesterday: Brandon Backe's gutsy start to clinch the NL Wildcard having learned an hour before game-time he would replace Roger Clemens; Morgan Ensberg hitting his first home run of the season on July 1st against the Rangers, winning the game for the Astros, and just for good measure hitting his second the night after (and a grand slam too); Beltran's catch in the first inning to rob Michael Young of a home run in the Rangers' first bat bat in just his third game for the club (they would win the game 1-0); Clemens' first start in an Astro uniform, in which he fanned Barry Bonds looking, not once, but twice: Lance Berkman's bizarre home run in the ninth inning that the wind mysteriously carried into the right field porch at what was then SBC Park. All in all you would describe it as one of those once in a lifetime seasons, if the events of 2005 had not come immediately afterward.
The post-season is another thing entirely. I still get goosebumps recalling Thom Brennaman's call as Roger Clemens tied up Albert Pujols with a truly filthy splitter in Game 3 of the NLCS. 'Nobody's gonna hit that pitch,' he drawls.
Yet no moment sticks out to me more than the one on August 27th 2004, Wrigley Field. Kerry Wood took on Oswalt, but it will be remembered as Michael Barrett- Oswalt, round two in the bean war saga. Five days earlier, as most Astros' fans will remember, at Minute Maid Park, Oswalt plunked Barrett after giving up a 3-run shot to Aramis Ramirez. Barrett saw it as retaliation and home plate umpire Bill Hohn concured, tossing the Astros' ace (a lovely piece of symmetry here, as guess who tossed Oswalt in that start against the Nats two weeks back? You guessed it, Bill Hohn).
In the rematch at Wrigley Field every time Oswalt stepped up to the plate, Barrett stepped up his verbal assault, taunting the young right hander all through his at-bats. Not allowing himself to be provoked, Oswalt kept his composure and ignored the onslaught. Barrett continued as, having been plunked by Kent Mercker, the catcher followed the pitcher down the first base line as he took his base, so he could yell at him some more.
It was a beautiful moment. While C.B. Bucknor waved the angry catcher away, Oswalt merely peered at him from below his batting helmet, and grinned, and why shouldn't he? He had got inside Barrett's head.
Oswalt's performance on the mound itself was not stellar: he gave up six runs in eight innings, giving up home runs to Nomar Garciaparra and Derrek Lee. However it did not need to be as his counterpart Kerry Wood imploded, and the Astros took the game 15-7.
If the Astros were not on their way already, Barrett made sure. Perhaps this game had nothing to do with their propulsion to a 36-10 finish, but I always linked the two. Maybe the game was just confirmation that the Astros were on the way north, the Cubs south. Coming into the game, the Cubs had been seven games ahead of the Astros, who were only a game above .500 at the time. Coming into the series they had beaten the Phillies six time in just over a week, and having straddled the .500 mark all season, they finally said goodbye to that mark on August 23rd, the day after Oswalt was ejected. In their thirty-four remaining games they would lose only seven, while Chicago would go a mediocre 18-16 down the stretch.
The cracks were starting to show for Dusty Baker's Cubs, evident in the actions of Kyle Farnsworth, who threw his glove into the stands after surrendering six runs in the ninth, before displaying a comical amount of petulance in kicking the dugout fan, thus landing himself on the DL with a sprained and bruised right knee. Apparently Mercker even called announcer Chip Caray to criticize him for praising Oswalt. Gliding over the demolition job the Astros had just done on their team, all the Cubs announcers could do was speculate on Beltran's future (since he was bound for the free agency market), and whether he could be enticed to sign with the Cubs, as he so obviously enjoyed the confines of Wrigley Field, having gone 4-5 on the day with two steals, a walk, two home runs and four RBIs.
The rest, they say, is history.