This is the first in a series analyzing the best non-championship teams in Astros history.
How could I possibly pick the 2004 Astros over the first Astro team to make it to the World Series. After all, a team that started the season like this:
Starting the season 15-30.
Could end up doing this.
Yes, the 2005 Astros, the only Astros team to wave an NL pennant, although they were swept in the World Series. But the 2004 team was better, even if they never got to the World Series.
Another Astros heartbreaking team that left you wondering: What could have been?
What a line-up. It started with the Killer 4 B’s. Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell. Lance Berkman, having one of the best seasons of his career. And, yes, the famous, and infamous, Carlos Beltran.
Two of these are Hall of Famers, the other two worthy of serious consideration.
Add to that one of the best hitting second basemen in modern history, Jeff Kent, former All-Star third baseman Morgan Ensberg, one of the best ever defensive shortstops Adam Everett. (who hit .273 in 2004)
But the big difference maker was Carlos Beltran. Before Beltran came to the Astros from the Royals on June 28th, the Astros were massive under-achievers. Before the big trade, the Astros were 37-34. With Beltran they were 55-36, nineteen games over .500.
The Astros won 92 games in 2004. Good, but nowhere near all-time great Astros. But the Astros team I’m talking about is the second-half 2004 Astros team with the young Willie Mays clone playing center field, Carlos Beltran.
In 90 games he hit 23 home runs, got 53 RBI, and 28 stolen bases. In that limited time with the Astros, Beltran had 4.5 bWAR, of which one was from his stellar defense.
He really shone in the playoffs. In both the NLDS and NLCS series his OPS was above 1.500. He had 20 hits, 14 RBI, and eight home runs in 12 games. His win probability added in the NLCS was almost a whole game, 0.82.
Here’s a few highlights.
The fact that the Astros were 19 games over .500 during the ninety game tenure of Beltran is even more remarkable when you consider that thee-fifths of the Astros starting rotation fell apart at the same time.
The Astros’ starting rotation when healthy was good enough with half the firepower in the lineup to take the Astros to the World Series. They proved it in 2005, when Roy Oswalt, Roger Clemens, and Andy Pettite carried the Astros to the World Series without the help of Beltran, Bagwell, or Kent.
In fact, the Astros staff in 2004 was potentially even better. Not only did they have the Big Three, they had peak Wade Miller. Trouble is, after 15 games each, both Pettite and Miller suffered season ending injuries. Fifth starter Tim Redding was out soon after.
There was a silver lining. Brandon Backe emerged from obscurity to fill a small part of the gap. But there was no one else close to being worthy of playing on a play-off contender to come forward to replace the 3, 4 and 5 starters.
This proved deadly in the playoffs. The Astros would make the playoffs as a Wild Card team. They would have to ride Oswalt and Clements hard if they hoped to advance. Oswalt had already pitcher 236 innings in the regular season, the 41 year-old Clemens 216. They would be pushed to their limit...and beyond, in the Championship Series especially.
Oswalt and Clemens would start four of the five games played in the NLDS, Oswalt winning the clinching game five against Atlanta. They would come into the ALCS against St Louis on short rest.
The Cardinals were the class of the National League. This was the Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Albert Pujols Cardinals that won 105 games. The Astros would lose the first two games of the series, with starters Brandon Backe and Pete Munro looking overwhelmed by the powerful Cardinals lineup.
But Rogers Clemens and Roy Oswalt would set the series even at 2-2. Clemens and Oswalt would only have a chance to pitch in three games in this series, due to their use in the NLDS, and therefore some other starter would have to step up if the Astros would have a chance to win this series.
That someone else was Brandon Backe, who threw one of the best games in Astros playoff history, shutting out the Cards for eight innings en route to a 3-0 win.
To eliminate the Cardinals the Astros only needed to win one of two in St. Louis. Pete Munro got bombed in Game six, leaving it up to Roger Clemens to bring the pennant to Houston in Game Seven.
Clemens was dealing until the sixth, protecting a two to one lead. But then a season and a playoffs of overuse finally took its toll. He allowed one run to let the Cards tie the score. Then this happened.
And so a great Astros team failed to advance in the playoffs. Like other great Astros teams that had come before, the 86 Stros, the 98 Stros. to name two.
But this was a great Astros team. Championship calibre. Crippling injuries to a great pitching staff left the team too thin at starting pitcher to face the rigors of the playoffs. But this team was just a healthy Andy Pettite or Wade Miller away from winning the World Series.