Astros History: Randy Johnson and Eleven Games of Glory

Reviewing the Astros' 1998 acquisition of one of the top pitchers in MLB history

The Astros make their maiden voyage to the Pacific Northwest as an AL team this week to start a nine game roadie against the Seattle Mariners. Houston has had success against the Mariners in Interleague play, going 6-3 all-time against Seattle, including a three game sweep at Minute Maid in 2007. But a handful of games isn't the most meaningful time these two teams have crossed paths.

The Astros found themselves up 3.5 games in the NL Central with a 65-44 record on the morning of July 31, 1998. Little did we know that a mere hours later, the Astros would make a trade for one of the best pitchers in the game, and historically ever. Though the Astros were in a good position to make the playoffs, then general manager Gerry Hunsicker went all-in with the acquisition of Randy Johnson minutes before the trade deadline. In exchange for Johnson, Houston sent Carlos Guillen, Freddy Garcia and John Halama to Seattle.

Johnson made his first start for the Astros two days later in Pittsburgh, throwing 7 innings. He allowed 2 runs and struck out 12 in a 6-2 win. It was the first of an amazing, albeit short run in an Astros uniform for the Big Unit. His 1998 numbers as a Mariner were pretty pedestrian; he posted a 9-10 record with a 4.33 ERA, though his SO/9 was still a ridiculous and perfectly even 12.0. (Protip: If you ever get bored, check out Johnson's career strikeout numbers on Baseball Reference, it's a treat). Immediately after he was dealt to Houston however, Johnson found his second wind of the 1998 season. Beginning with his August 2 start against Pittsburgh, Johnson went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA with a 0.98 WHIP and a 12.4 K/9. The most astounding statistic of Johnson's dominance as an Astro, however, is his ERA+. In Seattle, Johnson posted a 106, a respectable number. In his 11 starts in Houston? 322. That number undoubtedly wouldn't have held up over the course of a season's worth of starts, but it nonetheless shows just how dominant Johnson was in those eleven starts.

The Astros coasted to their second straight NL Central championship with a franchise-best record of 102-60. (Amazingly, that was only the third-best record in the majors that year. The Yankees won 114, while Atlanta won 106). The Astros' playoff run ended prematurely in the division series against San Diego and the Kevin Brown train, though by no fault of Johnson's own. In two starts, Randy threw 14 innings with a 1.93 ERA and 17 strikeouts, but the Good Guys fell in four games due to an inability to hit, posting a paltry .182 average over the course of the series.

Ultimately, Hunsicker's gamble in trading for Johnson to have a serious shot at a World Series title didn't pay off. I personally was too young/not a baseball fan in 1998, so I can't recall the fan sentiment, but Hunsicker's "all-in" mentality is the same that we have seen recently with the movement of ace pitchers to contending teams at the trade deadline. In a Seattle Times article just after the deal, manager Larry Dierker said "we sacrificed the future for the present" in trading for Johnson.

Did the trade set the Astros back, as some other blockbusters of this nature have? Not at all. It's interesting to think how the productive careers of Garcia and Guillen could've played into the Astros success in the early 2000s; Guillen played a big role in the Mariners' and Tigers' contending teams, while Garcia came in 2nd of the Rookie of the Year voting in 1999 and won the clinching Game 4 of the 2005 World Series in Houston, and Johnson left that winter after signing a four year deal with Arizona. It's both fun and frustrating to think how Astros history could be different if we had those players around, but the Astros still had many great seasons without them due to a strong farm system and some savvy free agent signings. Though Houston only had eleven chances to see one of the best, most exciting pitchers in history work his magic for their team, that torrid run in the summer of '98 supplemented by the acquisition of Randy Johnson must've been one of the best, most exciting in Astros history.

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