Five Years On, The Astros Comeback That Never Was

Luke Scott's walkoff home run, Roger Clemens' final home appearances in an Astros' uniform, two huge late home runs by Lance Berkman and Aubrey Huff, a walk-off single by Craig Biggio, and a 15th-inning win. Who would have thought these events could have been packed into a single week?

On September 19, 2006 the Astros were 8 1/2 games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central after losing 5-4 to the Cincinnati Reds. Scarcely a week later, nine days in fact, they would find themselves 1/2 a game behind the Redbirds, in what must be heralded as one of the most shocking divisional turnarounds ever. 

Yet for all the attention the comebacks of 2004 and 2005 received, 2006 gets far less, partly due to the fact that it was unsuccessful. Five years later, and coming into a series with the Cardinals, where the Astros could possibly wreck their playoff hopes, now is a good a time as any to look at that stretch in some detail.

Nine Days that Rocked the NL Central

September 20, Astros beat Reds 7-2, Cardinals lose to the Brewers 1-0 (7 1/2 behind)

In what was thought to be his last start at Minute Maid Park, Roger Clemens threw six shutout innings and got a standing ovation after being pulled by Phil Garner. Craig Biggio and Luke Scott hit home runs, with the latter running his season batting average to .382. 

September 21, Astros beat Cardinals 6-5 (6 1/2 behind)

Lance Berkman launched two home runs almost single-handedly beating Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter. Even with the victory their magic number to clinch the division was 5, and their beat writer echoed the team's confidence with this statement after the loss:

"The Astros are clinging desperately to the fringes of contention in both the National League Central division and the NL Wild Card race, while the Cards' march to October has taken on an inevitable quality."

September 22, Astros beat Cardinals 6-5 (5 1/2 behind)

150 games into the season and Biggio's RBI single in the ninth was the club's first walk-off hit of the season. 

"We've got a really good challenge," manager Phil Garner said. "We've got something to play for. Thank goodness we have something to play for."

Down 5-2 in the eighth, the Astros rallied against the Cardinals' bullpen. If alarm bells were not ringing in St. Louis before this game they probably were after this game. 

September 23, Astros beat Cardinals 7-4 (4 1/2 behind)

Roy Oswalt looked to be crusing through six, but in the seventh a Chris Duncan home run gave the Redbirds the lead. They soon took the lead back only for Dan Wheeler to blow the save, rectified in the bottom of the inning by a 3-run walk off home run by Scott. 

September 24, Astros beat Cardinals 7-3 (3 1/2 behind)

Jeff Weaver, the one-time Astros nemesis was outpitched by Clemens, who started on three days rest in this crucial encounter. Again the Astros blew a late lead with Miller being the guilty party, but Aubrey Huff's three-run shot off Randy Flores proved the distance in the game. 

"They're tough to play here," said reliever Josh Hancock. "They have a 10th man out there with the crowd. This place gets loud. Things are going well for them right now."

September 25, Astros beat Phillies 6-5, Cardinals lose to Padres 6-5 (2 1/2 behind)

Before heading to Pittsburgh the Astros had a make-up game to play at Citizens Bank Park. With the starting rotation effectively down to Oswalt, Pettitte and Berkman, Chris Sampson started what turned into a bullpen game, tossing 3 2/3 scoreless innings. Wandy Rodriguez and Dave Borkowski coughed up leads, but the offense rallied for three runs in the seventh to take its sixth straight win. 

September 26, Astros beat Pirates 7-4, Cardinals lose to Padres 7-5 (1 1/2 behind)

No luck for the Cardinals as they dropped their seventh straight as the Astros won their seventh straight. 

After the game Tony LaRussa said:  "I like a lot of things I see, except the score."

Meanwhile Andy Pettitte did enough to earn his 14th win of the season, Craig Biggio drove in three runs and the team kept on rolling. 

September 27, Astros beat Pirates 7-6, Cardinals beat Padres 4-2 (1 1/2 behind)

Albert Pujols ended the slide with a decisive 3-run homer against the Padres bullpen while the Astros ground out a result against the Pirates. But their magic number stayed at four as the Astros battled through a grueling 15 innings, Brad Ausmus getting the all-important sac-fly. Sampson, Brad Lidge and Wheeler all tossed 2+ scoreless innings in relief. 

September 28, Astros beat Pirates 3-0, Cardinals lose to Brewers 9-4 (1/2 behind)

One of Roy Oswalt's finest efforts, only 200 stuck around to watch the Wizard blank the Pirates on a damp day in Pittsburgh. 

"It definitely puts us in a tougher spot, but they're looking up at us still, whether it's by a half a game or not," said Preston Wilson, who started the season with Houston. "It's still half a game. They're looking up at us, so they have to do more than we have to at this point."

In nine days the Cardinals magic number to clinch the NL Central dropped from just five to four. Comparisons were already being made to the 1964 Phillies, who blew a 6 1/2 game lead with 12 games remaining. 

Beaten by the Braves

This is where the story went sour. The Astros bats, who had delivered over the nine-game winning streak when they needed to, went ice cold in Atlanta. With the Cardinals magic number sitting at four, the Astros needed to keep winning and hope the Redbirds kept on losing. Roger Clemens pitched another six solid innings, but was outdueled by Chuck James, and what made it worse was that the Brewers were beaten 10-5 by the Cardinals. Their magic number was now at 2. 

The next night the offense bailed out Trever Miller, who blew Pettitte's lead in the eighth inning, prevailing 5-4. All looked to be going well in St. Louis, with the Brewers leading 2-0 late in the game, but a late 3-run triple from Scott Spiezio off Francisco Cordero gave the Cardinals an invaluable win. 

Going into game 162 for the Astros and game 161 for the Cardinals the math was simple. The former had to win and the latter had to lose to keep Houston's series alive. Pull that off and the Redbirds would have to make up a game with the Giants. Lose that and they would head to Minute Maid Park for a one-game playoff. 

St. Louis held up its end of the bargain, but the Astros managed nothing off John Smoltz in the first six innings and fared little better against the Braves bullpen, losing 4-1 and ending the season with a whimper. 

The Aftermath

The September stretch was the last Astros fans would see of several players. Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens both returned to New York, Willy Taveras, Jason Hirsh and Taylor Buchholz were dealt to Colorado for Jason Jennings, and Russ Springer was shown the door by Tim Purpura. Never mind that those three never made it, I still have no idea how that deal made sense in Purpura's head, nor anyone else's. 2007 would be the last season before Ed Wade's great cleanout, heralding few survivors. 

The Cardinals would go on to win the World Series, putting behind them the sweep by the Red Sox two years earlier, taking the series from the Tigers, despite the piece of cake on Kenny Rogers hand (I also greatly enjoyed this moment in the NLCS).

The years 2007-2011 have not been kind to the Astros, but neither have they treated the Cardinals that well. Between 1996-2006 only one season saw postseason play without either of the two teams, 2003. Assuming the Braves beat out the Cardinals for the NL wildcard, only once in the past five seasons has either made the playoffs. The rest of the division, which was at times chronically awful, has suddenly become far more competitive. 

Our period of 'dominance' is well over.  Rather than pointing fingers while analyzing the period 2004-2008 in which decisions made irreparable damage to the franchise as a whole, as an article on Grantland did, or saying that their fall from grace is unprecedented as Richard Justice said recently, I prefer to marvel at an extraordinary five seasons. 

In those nine days I remember the Houston section of the media going more and more crazy, but it all seemed insulated. It got nowhere near the attention the Phillies received in 2007 for ousting the lolMets. I always thought at the time and I still believe today that that team did not get enough credit for its incredible streakiness. If success is never certain, why is failure treated like it is? Why do people get credit for good luck, but blame for bad luck? 

All this talk of falling off a mountaintop is trash, because, looking at 2006 and even 2008 you can see that sometimes even things don't go the right way for good teams. The margin for error in all sports is tiny. Anything from Chuck James to Hurricane Ike can ruin a season. This fatal misunderstanding of an apparent zenith in 2004 and 2005 has fatally skewed Justice and a few others' analysis of the period in my opinion. In some cases good judgement can only be seen in hindsight, in other cases they can be picked straight away.

The sky may seen as black as midnight at the moment for the Astros, but who knows when they will have a big nine games and watch the stars align for them again?

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