This week SB Nation is featuring sports moments that made you cry. This is my entry.
Even without Randy Johnson, the Astros may well have been the best team in the National League in 1998. They were clearly the best hitting team. They led the league in wRC+ at 113, five points better than #2 Braves. They also led the league in runs scored, 620 to 581. (by the Braves again)
Individually, the Astros had five of the top 30 hitters in the league by wRC+. They were, in order, Jeff Bagwell, Moises Alou, Craig Biggio, Derek Bell, and Carl Everett. The Braves could only match with Andres Gallaraga and Chipper Jones in the top 30.
Of course the Braves had the edge in pitching, with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz all within the Top 10 in ERA, all under 3.00. But the Astros had three hurlers rated between 16-23 in ERA, Mike Hampton, Shane Reynolds, and Jose Lima.
The Braves were number one in runs allowed, giving away only 826 to the Astros’ 874. The Braves’ team ERA was a league best 3.25, but the Astros were second at 3.50. Of course that included 84 innings, but only 84 innings, of you know who.
Overall, the Astros had the edge in run differential, 254 to 235.
But then came Randy Johnson. In eleven starts he was 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA. The Astros won 102 games in 1998, with Johnson contributing only one third of the season. Against the Braves’ staff in the playoffs he was the great equalizer. He was the ticket to the World Series.
One problem. The Astros had to get through San Diego and their great equalizer Kevin Brown. But with Johnson the Astros were clearly the better team. The Padres would just be a speed bump on the road to Atlanta.
Things that make you cry: The big choke, 1998 Astros, NLDS.
The Astros lost the series 3-1. In the three losing games they scored only three runs total, and only eight for the series. To add insult to injury, Randy Johnson was the losing pitcher in two of those losses, although no one would blame him. He only allowed three earned runs in the two losses.
For the series the Astros only managed a .525 OPS, compared to a .792 season average. The big five bats, Bagwell, Alou, Biggio, Bell, and Everett, hit OPS .393, .375, .743, .348, and .308 respectively. The only Astros home run was by Bell. And you can’t blame it all on the wizardry (or steroid use) of Kevin Brown. The Astros faced him two out of four games, once on short rest. And they didn’t exactly destroy the other Padres pitchers either.
I think the game that made me cry the most was Game 1. The Astros had paid a high price to rent Johnson, whom they probably didn’t need to win the division. Johnson was there to win playoff games and a championship. I think everyone sensed that if Johnson lost Game 1, the Astros would lose the series.
It was one of the classic pitching duels for the ages.
Although he struggled by his own standards, Randy Johnson only allowed two runs, on eight hits and one walk. He struck out nine. He gave up a crucial eighth inning solo homer to Greg Vaughn and allowed the Padres to string together a double and two weak singles for their only other run in the sixth.
Kevin Brown was magnificent. In his eight innings he allowed only two hits, no runs and amassed 16 strikeouts. Strikeouts didn’t come so cheaply back in 1998 as they do now.
The Astros threatened Brown only once. With one out in the bottom of the third, Brad Ausmus singled, and got to third on two passed balls. Unfortunately, it was up to Randy Johnson to at least sacrifice him home, but Brown got both Johnson and Craig Biggio to strike out.
Down two to nothing in the bottom of the ninth the Astros finally managed to mount a meager challenge. Facing the formidable Trevor Hoffman, Bill Spiers led off with a double. Hopes ran high, with the meat of the order coming up behind Spiers. But Derek Bell flied out and Jeff Bagwell struck out. Still, Moises Alou kept hope alive with an infield hit and an error which scored Spiers and left him at second with Carl Everett at bat. Everett sent one to deep center field, but it was a long out, and the Astros succumbed in Game One, 2-1.
Losing Game One at home, with the Big Unit on the mound, seemed to predestine the outcome of the whole series. Hope did return after Game two, a 5-4 win for the Astros. Starter Shane Reynolds allowed only two runs, and although Billy Wagner blew a save by allowing a two-run homer to Jim Leyritz, he earned the win when Bill Spiers walked-off the game with an RBI single in the bottom of the ninth.
The five runs scored in Game Two were almost double the total the Astros would score in the other three games.
Game three saw another stellar performance by an Astro starter, and another classic pitcher’s duel. Mike Hampton allowed only one run and two hits in six innings, matching the Kevin Brown juggernaut, who, pitching on short rest, managed to pitch out of trouble in his 6.2 innings. He allowed only three hits, but also five walks and two hit by pitch. And yet, even with ten base runners in less than seven full innings, the Astros could only manage one run on a bases loaded walk to Craig Biggio in the seventh.
In the bottom of the inning the Padres would get all the runs they would need for the win, Jim Leyritz again providing the fireworks with a solo home run off Scott Elarton to finish the scoring, 2-1 Padres.
The Padres took a big risk pitching Brown again on short rest, and the wear on him showed. But the Astros could not capitalize. However, Game Four was for the Stros. Johnson was back, on full rest, against...whomever...did it really matter? (It was Sterling Hitchcock)
Who da thunk. Hitchcock out-pitched Johnson. Or was it that the Astros bats by then were be-dazzled, confused, and baffled?
Hitchcock: 6 IP, 3 hits, 1 earned run, 11 SO.
Johnson: 6 IP, 3 hits, 1 earned run, 8 SO.
Still, regardless of how well the Padres pitcher pitched, or how badly the Astros batters hit, Johnson pitched well enough to win again.
But he didn’t.
The Padres scored four against the Astros’ bullpen. The Astros were hitless against the Padres’.
The best team in the NL went down in round one without even a whimper.
No starting pitcher for the Astros allowed more than two runs in this series. Yet the best hitting team in the NL got only 22 hits in four games, and only 11 in the three losses.
Jeff Bagwell struck out six times. (In his defense, he also got 4 RBI, more than the rest of the team combined.)
Derek bell struck out seven times.
Biggio and Everett each whiffed four times.
The Astros struck out 49 times total, more than their 22 hits, (back then strikeouts greater than hits was weird) a strikeout rate of 40%. For the season the Astros struck out at a rate of 20%
It was a monumental choke. And you just can’t blame it all on Kevin Brown. The Astros batting average in the whole series was .182. (.280 for the year) In 1998, against all teams, including the weak ones, Kevin Brown’s Batting Average Against was .231. In this series the Astros hit .102 against Brown.
And even though the Astros had scarce few baserunners, if they had gotten a few more hits when they had runners in scoring position they still could have won. With RISP the Astros were only 4 for 32, or .125.
Yes, it was painful to watch the mighty Astros, the Killer B’s at their peak, definite championship contenders built for the playoffs, flail helplessly in the NLDS with the best team in their history.
We knew the Big Unit wouldn’t be back, nor would the future All-Star prospects the Astros surrendered to get him.
The gamble failed. Things wouldn’t be this good for a long time. (Nineteen years to be exact). You could see it as clear as day.
If you thought about it, it made you cry.
BTW. The Padres made the Braves cry too. They were eventually swept by a Yankees juggernaut that won the world Series.
Here’s a good look of the Game 1, 1998 NLDS pitcher’s duel.