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Devastation and a No-Hitter: Remembering Hurricane Ike and That Ill-Fated Trip to Milwaukee

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The 2008 Astros looked poised for a magical run before disaster struck.

Astros-Cubs Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

From 2007-14, the Astros posted a losing record seven times. Houston also didn’t qualify once for the postseason during this eight year period, which represents the third-longest drought in franchise history. The only season in which the Astros posted a winning record during this time was the 2008 season (86-75). It was also a year when a hurricane — the infamous Ike — essentially derailed any postseason hopes that the club may have had at the time.

Before Hurricane Ike came to form that September, however, the Astros were experiencing an up-and-down season. The club only had one winning month prior to August, which was May (17-11). By the end of the season’s first half, the Astros were 44-51 and allowed 44 more runs than they scored. There were times when the team played well at various points in the season, but then quickly faded just as fast. And one can’t forget about the infamous Shawn Chacon scuffle with then-general manager Ed Wade. The Astros were truly a mediocre baseball team and it showed for the majority of the season.

Then something unexpected happened in August as the Astros went 21-9 to keep themselves from drifting further away in the NL Wild Card race. Ty Wigginton (209 wRC+) and Lance Berkman (154 wRC+) led the way with their bats while the starting rotation led by Roy Oswalt(1.42 ERA) and Randy Wolf (2.23 ERA) set the tone for the pitching staff that month. Although Houston only picked up a half game in the standings to lessen the deficit to 8.5 games against the Wild Card-leading Brewers, it did keep them from becoming completely irrelevant. On the off chance that Milwaukee stumbled in September, the Astros could make the last month of the season quite interesting.

Well, they did.

By September 12, the day before Hurricane Ike’s landfall in Galveston, the Astros had gained an additional 5.5 games on the Brewers, thanks to a torrid 9-1 start. Only three games separated the two clubs in the standings. Oswalt played a crucial role to start the month with 26 13 scoreless innings to start the month while the lineup began to exhibit signs of life down the stretch. Milwaukee, on the other hand, stumbled by dropping seven of their first ten games. The late season magic that pushed Houston to postseason berths in 2004 and 2005 was back in full force from all appearances. A key three-game home series against the NL Central-leading Cubs at Minute Maid Park was next and crucial to the club’s chances to play baseball in October.

We all remembered what happened next as Hurricane Ike devastated Galveston and the surrounding regions starting on September 13. Millions were left without power and the damage from the storm was extensive. Lives were tragically lost. It would be a long time before normalcy would return to the region. In the grand scheme of things, the Astros weren’t high on the priority list for everyone, and rightly so. It was only baseball. That said, there remains a bit of controversy about what happened next.

The baseball-related controversy at the time, and one that still irks some today, was the fact that the Astros had to play two “home” games at Milwaukee against the Cubs. Yes, the same Cubs who play their home games in Wrigley Field, which is roughly 90 miles south of the Miller Park in Milwaukee. Thanks to Ike, that critical home series against the Cubs became a what was basically a road series deep in their territory. A third game was to be played in Houston on September 29, if it was still needed. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.

The series was postponed the Thursday before the hurricane’s landfall, but then-owner Drayton McLane was hopeful that the series would still take place in Houston. Or, in the words of Richard Justice in 2008, “desperate.” Ultimately, it was determined by commissioner Bud Selig that Miller Park was the best site for this series, for reasons still beyond me.

The first game of that ill-fated road trip to Milwaukee just so happened to be the site of Carlos Zambrano’s first and only no-hitter of his career. While I know that one game didn’t fully destroy the Astros’ postseason hopes that year by itself, it sure felt like it on an emotional level as a fan. The lineup, from what I can recall, was understandably lifeless as they also had families and friends in the Houston area when Ike came ashore. No, the entire team felt lifeless that day. The win probability chart reflects that sense of morose.

FanGraphs

The subsequent road trip through Miami and Pittsburgh were also not optimal as the Astros would ultimately lose five games in a row. To add insult to injury, the Brewers also experienced a skid of their own, dropping eight of their next nine from September 11-20. Milwaukee would eventually edge Houston out of the Wild Card race by just 3.5 games, with the Mets only a game behind.

Thanks to that “home” series and the anguish from a natural disaster, the Astros quickly unraveled to finish the season. The franchise then wouldn’t sniff a winning record or the postseason again until the 2015 season. What started as a hopeful postseason run in 2008 eventually transformed into a multi-year decline that culminated in one of the more drastic rebuilds in sports history.