The 2004 playoffs were one of the most exciting in recent major league history. After a disappointing end to the 2001 postseason and a near miss at the 2003 playoffs, the Houston Astros reeled off seven straight wins to finish the 2004 regular season as the NL Wild Card with a 92-70 record, narrowly edging San Francisco by one game. The Boston Red Sox also captured their own Wild Card spot, but did so pretty comfortably, winning by six games.
All signs pointed to another Red Sox-Yankees showdown in the ALCS after the Yankees won the previous year on Aaron Boone's walk-off homer in extras of Game 7. That's exactly what America got, and it became one of the most memorable seven game series in all of sports history, let alone baseball. But what if the Astros had found a way to win game seven against St. Louis in their own league championship series?
The senior circuit championship series was no slouch itself. The Astros and the St. Louis Cardinals traded blows for the entire series, with the home team winning every game. Unfortunately, the Cardinals had more home games than the Astros, so they won. Not really though; the Cardinals were a juggernaut in 2004, finishing with a 105-57 record. Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds all posted MVP-caliber numbers, and five guys in the Cards rotation won at least ten games. In other words; they were really damn good.
As Houston fans, we know pretty much everything about that 2004 team. That October, I realized what team I would support for the rest of my life. As a fifth grader, that sounded like a big deal, but watching Clemens, Pettitte and Oswalt shut lineups down and Carlos Beltran whacking baseballs out of ballparks and infuriating the Cardinals in the process made it easy. It's ridiculous how many different euphoric and crushing moments happened in that series; Beltran golfing a homer to right against Julian Tavarez in Game 4, Jeff Kent winning Game 5 with a three run bomb, Brandon Backe dominating in Game 5. Then, the heartbreak. Edmonds' walk off homer in Game 6, then watching the Astros fail to muster any kind of a comeback in the deciding Game 7 were crushing moments that I still remember to this day.
What if the Astros had found a way to beat the Cardinals? It would've been a series with some fantastic subplots, especially in Games 1 and 2. Who could've guessed the season before that the newly-retired Clemens would make a comback, in Boston, to pitch against the team that drafted him, in the World Series, and as an Astro? What about Jeff Bagwell facing his hometown team where his professional career began? Andy Pettitte deserves a mention here as a former Yankee, but he was injured for much of the 2004 season and didn't pitch in the playoffs.
Back to what really happened; Cardinals were thoroughly dominated as the Red Sox cruised to a sweep. Would the Astros' chances have been any better? Statistically, probably not. The Cardinals were a better team on paper and the field, and the Astros' pitching, which would've been a key to shutting down the potent Red Sox offense, wouldn't have come into the series too hot. Clemens and Oswalt had 4.15 and 6.75 ERAs from the NLCS, respectively, and Pete Munro would've started a game or two. The offense was carried by Beltran, Lance Berkman and Jeff Kent, putting it at a fairly equal level as the Cardinals, but a little less balanced. Biggio and Bagwell both struggled a bit against St. Louis.
This is a scenario I've always thought about. What would it be like to be the team that Boston beat to break The Curse? I certainly do believe the Red Sox still would've won; not only were they scorching hot on offense and had great pitching, but destiny just seemed to be on their side that year. Even one of the best National League teams of the past decade couldn't win, much less take a game. It would've been a special piece of history to be the team Boston beat to end it's World Series drought, special even in defeat. But 2004 just wasn't our year, and Astros fans had to wait until the next October to get a second crack at the Cardinals and that elusive World Series.