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MLB Strike 1994: Looking at where the Astros sat before the stoppage

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Twenty years after baseball's strike scuttled a season, let's take a look back at the Astros of 1994.

Bob Levey

Five years ago, in 2009 on Aug. 12, the Astros beat the Florida Marlins 14-6 and moved to 56-58 on the season. The rest of the season was a downhill slide, as Houston went 18-30 down the stretch to finish with just 74 wins, 17 games out of first place.

Ten years ago, in 2004, the Astros lost to the Mets 2-1 and fell to 56-58. Of course, they soon unleashed a 36-12 run to close the season, earning a wild card berth in the playoffs before winning the first playoff series in franchise history.

Twenty years ago, in 1994, Houston's season was over.

August 12, 1994 marked the end of a fantastic season for the Astros. Houston lost its final game, 8-6, as Joey Hamilton and the Padres won on Aug. 11, the day before baseball players went on strike.

That strike stole a World Series. It stole the Montreal Expos. It stole much of baseball's goodwill with fans.

Did it steal Houston's best shot at a championship? Let's take a look at who the Astros were at the time of the strike, what their schedule looked like and whether or not they could have finished out on a high note.

First baseman Jeff Bagwell hit .368/.451/.750 with 39 home runs through Aug. 11 of that year, on his way to an MVP award. He also broke his hand on Aug. 10 when he was hit by an Andy Benes pitch in the top of the third inning. What you may not have realized is that Bagwell didn't leave the game immediately. He stayed in for another at-bat, striking out on three pitches to Benes in the bottom of the fifth.

Chris Donnels replaced Bagwell in the top of the sixth and started the season's final game, going 1 for 4.

Bagwell was by far the most valuable player on that Astros team. You saw his batting line, but FanGraphs translates that to a 7.8 fWAR, in just 479 plate appearances. Three other Astros position players posted WAR totals above 2.0, including Craig Biggio (4.4), Ken Caminiti (3.9) and Steve Finley (2.3). Two more, Luis Gonzalez and Kevin Bass, likely would have crested 2.0 by the end of the season.

On the pitching side, both Doug Drabek and Shane Reynolds had WAR totals above 2.0, but the rest of the rotation was a little suspect. Darryl Kile was 9-6 with a 4.57 ERA in 24 starts. Greg Swindell was 8-9 with a 4.37 ERA in 24 starts. Pete Harnisch and Brian Williams were even worse.

And the bullpen? Outside of Todd Jones, it was pretty suspect too. Mitch Williams imploded spectacularly. Dave Veres and John Hudek both had solid ERAs, but Veres had six meldowns and Hudek had nine to that point in the season. Mike Hampton was pitching effectively, but had only 17 career innings in the majors before 1994.

With that loss to San Diego, Houston stayed a half-game back of Cincinnati in the standings. The Astros had two big series with 74-40 Montreal on deck. Starting a week after the strike began, Houston would have played Montreal six times in nine games, sandwiching the sub-.500 Mets in between.

Houston could have feasted off a September stretch where it played four series with Philadelphia and Florida, two of the NL East cellar-dwellers, before finishing the season with three games hosting Cincinnati.

Even with all the question marks around that Astros team, that would have been one heck of a playoff run.

Would they have made it?

Those Astros scored 602 runs in 115 games while allowing 503. That puts their third-order wins one better than their record of 66-49. That may not seem like many runs, but the only National League team scoring more runs than those Astros was Cincinnati. Yet, Houston's run differential of plus-99 ranked third in the NL, behind Montreal's ungodly plus-131 and Cincinnati's plus-119.

Atlanta, too, trailed Houston by just five runs at plus-94, but had the edge on the Astros for that first wild card spot. No other team in the NL scored 25 or more runs than it allowed. Houston would have played Atlanta twice down the stretch in 1994, making that wild card race all the more fascinating.

But, those gaudy run totals also assume Houston would have had a healthy Jeff Bagwell the rest of the way. Given that Chris Donnels never posted even 1.0 fWAR in a season and only had a slugging percentage over .400 once in his career (in '94, incidentally), it's safe to say Houston would have had a huge downgrade at that spot.

That drop in production likely hurts the Astros quite a bit. Whether they could have kept up with the Braves and Reds down the stretch would have been fascinating to watch.

But, the strike robbed us of that joy. It robbed us of attendance and a World Series. Cal Ripken may have helped baseball recover. Steroids, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire may have reignited people's passion for the sport.

It never gave us back that playoff stretch run, though. Twenty years later, we're poorer for it.