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A Random Plate Appearance: Joe Niekro

The Houston Astros have played 9,524 regular season games and 135 postseason contests through their first 60.2 seasons of major league play.

Houston Astros v Pittsburgh Pirates

To this point of their existence, the Houston Astros have played in a total of 9,660 regular season and postseason contests.

The regular season record of the Astros is currently 4748-4776, just 28 games below .500. With a little luck, they’ll approach that mark this season. Although that’s not what this particular series is about, today’s “random” plate appearance does have a win attached to it.

As always, I used random.org to generate some random numbers, giving me a year, a game number, and a plate appearance number. Today’s draw gave me 1979, game 30, and plate appearance five (of 133). This gives me a contest between the St. Louis Cardinals and Houston on May 9, 1979, and a plate appearance with two outs in the top of the first.

The Stage

The Houston Astros entered the contest on May 9, 1979, with a 17-12 record. That put them a half-game on top of the NL West Division, just inches ahead of the Cincinnati Reds in the last days of the Big Red Machine. The Cardinals, at 14-12, sat five games behind the NL East Division-leading Philadelphia Phillies. This article is for the second game of a three-game series. St. Louis had won the first, with a final score of 4-1.

The Starters

Sports Contributor Archive 2020 Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images

For the Cardinals, right-hander John Denny (2-2, 3.00) was taking his turn. This was his sixth major league season of an eventual 13-season major league career. In 1983, he won the NL Cy Young Award vote, but never appeared in an All Star game.

The Astros were starting Joe Niekro (2-2, 3.57) in his 13th major league season of an eventual 22. The 1979 campaign was incidentally the only time in which Niekro earned a position on the All Star team.

Setting the Scene

With this contest being a home game for the Astros, the Astrodome played host to the two clubs plus 11,566 fans, most of them Houston fans. Niekro started the ballgame by gifting Garry Templeton first base by way of HBP. After Templeton stole second, Tony Scott reached on a fielder's choice that erased Templeton. Scott also stole second, then Niekro walked Keith Hernandez. Ted Simmons made the second out of the inning when Niekro struck him out looking.

The “Random” Plate Appearance

In 1979, there wasn’t a lot of pitch f/x available. None in fact, outside of the random surviving video. Not only was pitch-by-pitch info not available, but Baseball Reference can’t even say how many pitches each plate appearance consisted of.

Brewers v Cardinals Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images

With all that being said, George Hendrick touched Niekro for the first run of the ballgame, singling to center field and scoring Scott from second. The Astros began this particular plate appearance with a nearly 50 percent chance of victory and concluded it with a 39 percent chance. The leverage index was 1.67, indicating a plate appearance of some import, but many more were to come through the next 15 12 innings.

The Rest of the Game

The Astros would blast back in their half of the first against Denny, collecting a total of three singles. Two of them brought a run home, by Jose Cruz and Enos Cabell for a 2-1 lead.

Houston Astros v New York Mets

The score remained until the top half of the fourth frame when Ken Reitz (2) went deep off Niekro to tie the game at two. Later in the inning, Scott added a two-run triple to make it 4-2 in favor of the Cardinals.

St. Louis’ two-run lead was short-lived, however. Houston came back in the bottom of the inning when Alan Ashby drove home Bob Watson on a non-RBI double-play ball. Houston completed the comeback when Terry Puhl drew a sixth-inning bases-loaded walk-off Denny for a 4-4 tie.

Houston Astros v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Niekro was pulled after six innings with the score tied, and in no position to earn a decision either way. He had surrendered four earned runs on six hits and four walks, striking out two and earning a GameScore of 42.

For the rest of Regulation, the Cardinals managed a seventh-inning single and stolen base by Scott, but nothing else. Astros bats were silent until the bottom of the ninth when Jimmy Sexton led off with a single and Jeffrey Leonard drew a one-out walk. With the bases jacked, Cruz grounded into a 1-2-3 double play to send it to extras.

Houston Astros v Philadelphia Phillies

The two clubs traded zeroes through the 10th, the 11th, and all the way through the 15th. In the bottom of the 16th, with two outs and runners on the corners, Bob Watson singled home Leonard for a walk-off victory.

Aftermath

The Astrodome was famously spacious, and it showed in Houston’s home run totals for the season. No Houston player hit double digits, while seven players stole double-digit bases.

Shortstop Craig Reynolds would appear in his second and final All Star Game. Leonard, who entered for Cedeno in the fifth, would finish second in the NL Rookie of the Year Award vote.

Lefty reliever Joe Sambito, who whiffed three over three shutout innings in this game, went on to post an 8-7 record with a 1.77 ERA and 22 saves. He appeared in his only All Star game and actually earned a few NL MVP votes for his troubles.

Right-hander Joaquín Andújar, who pitched two scoreless innings, appeared in his second of four All Star contests, going 12-12 with a 3.43 ERA over 23 starts and 23 relief appearances.

Houston posted a 71-61 record the rest of the way, to end the season at 89-73. Unfortunately, that was 1 12 games behind the Reds. The Astros would go on to make their postseason debut following the 1980 season, and have gone on to appear in the playoffs in 15 seasons total.

For more on the 1979 season, check out the video above. Tune in here for more of these going forward, and go Astros!