The Astros’ Five Most Memorable Games

Number 1October 29, 2017: Astronomical!

In a postseason full of great moments for an Astros team on its way to its first-ever world title, none may have been more exhilarating, exhausting—and critical—than the fifth game of the World Series at Houston against the favored Los Angeles Dodgers.

With the series tied at two games apiece, the Astros looked at Game Five as a must-win; otherwise, they’d have to win the next two back at Los Angeles. Things didn’t look good early on when the Dodgers plated three quick runs in the first, then another in the fourth to knock Dallas Keuchel out of the game.

Normally, a 4-0 lead would be as good as gold for Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw. But this was an Astros lineup among the most potent in franchise history, this was an already crazy-to-date World Series, and this was 2017—a year when home runs were flying out at a record rate. Houston rallied, then struck loud as Yuli Gurriel—lucky to be playing after incurring the wrath of MLB and non-racists everywhere for making a slant-eyed gesture at Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish two days before—smacked a three-run homer to tie the game.

The Dodgers rebounded in the fifth on a three-run homer of their own from rookie slugger Cody Bellinger. But again, the Astros answered the Dodgers’ challenge in the bottom half of the frame as Jose Altuve made Kershaw pay for two walks and belted yet another three-run shot off Kershaw replacement Kenta Maeda to again knot the game up, at 7-7.

After the Dodgers reclaimed the lead with a single run in the eighth, they entrusted the lead to reliever Brandon Morrow, who had been lights out throughout October. But instead he was knocked out, and brutally so as the first four Astros he faced reached—and they all scored, the last three on yet another three-run homer, this one from Carlos Correa. Now up three runs and with three outs to victory, Chris Devenski—tasked with the closer role as Ken Giles had fallen apart—could not finish the job. He surrendered a two-run clout to Yasiel Puig, an Austin Barnes double and then a Chris Taylor single to score Barnes and, almost like clockwork, the score was evened once more at 12-12.

Already well beyond four hours, the game eventually moved to the 10th. After the Dodgers failed to score, it became the Astros’ chance to shine. Kenley Jansen, arguably the majors’ best closer of the moment, retired the first two Houston batters but then hit Brian McCann and walked George Springer to bring up Alex Bregman. The young third baseman punched a single up the middle, launching Derek Fisher (pinch-running for McCann) on his way home with the winning run to complete one of the greatest Fall Classic contests yet seen.

The Astros’ 13-12 win gave them a vital edge in the series, and they completed the championship quest a few days later when they won Game Seven at Los Angeles, 5-1.

Number 2September 25, 1986: Great Scott!

The Astros were on a roll heading towards the finish line and their second National League West title in club history, and they put the exclamation point on the race when they sent eventual Cy Young Award winner Mike Scott to the mound before 33,000 Astrodome fans against the San Francisco Giants and their manager, Roger Craig—who two years earlier as Detroit pitching coach had set Scott aside in the offseason and taught him the magic of the split-finger fastball.

The day before, Nolan Ryan took on the Giants and no-hit them into the seventh inning. A day before that, Jim Deshaies had struck out the first eight  Dodgers, on his way to a two-hit shutout. And now, with the magic number down to one, Scott was about to raise the ante on sensationalism and show Craig, the teacher, just what an exceptional pupil he had been.

Scott hit the first batter of the game and walked the leadoff batter in the second, but the Giants couldn’t take advantage of the gifts and he began to find his groove. The Astros scratched single runs in the fifth and seventh innings, with Denny Walling scoring both runs—one on a Jose Cruz single, the other on a solo home run. But the buzz centered around Scott, who became utterly dominant as the game wore on. In one stretch he struck out five straight batters (on his way to 13 K’s for the night) and wrapped up the no-hitter when Will Clark, who homered off of Ryan in his first major league at-bat back on Opening Day, essentially closed the NL West for business by grounding out and giving Scott and the Astros a memorable clinching of the division.

Number 3April 9, 1965: Behold, the Eighth Wonder of the World

After three years of writhing in the mosquito-infested heat and humidity of hastily-built Colt Stadium as the Colt .45s, the rebranded Astros feverishly welcomed their home debut at the Houston Astrodome, the world’s first indoor stadium, and upped the spectacle by bringing in the New York Yankees for an exhibition just prior to their first regular season home game.

The Astrodome was as modern as Colt Stadium was archaic. “We’ll build a stadium that will make Emperor Titus’s playhouse look like an abandoned brickyard,” Houston owner Judge Roy Hofheinz told Look Magazine. The $35 million facility gave birth to the modern luxury box and cushy theatre-type seating, was said to have a bowling alley, spa, shooting gallery and chapel among many other perks; people arriving in the parking lot could take advantage of drive-thru ticket booths. And, oh yes—it had a baseball field.

As for the game, Mickey Mantle was given the rare assignment of leading off because Yankee manager Johnny Keane wanted him to have the honor of being the first batter at the Astrodome. It would be a good night for Mantle, who later described the Astrodome as something that “reminds me of what I imagine my first ride would be like in a flying saucer”; he singled in his first at-bat, and later became the first player to hit a home run in the new stadium with a sixth-inning blast to center field off Turk Farrell. It was Mantle, not the Astros, but the fans cheered anyway.

Houston tied the game in the bottom half of the sixth, and it stayed scoreless through to the 11th inning when veteran second baseman and future Hall of Famer Nellie Fox, by now a Houston coach who pinch-hit now and then, entered the game and knocked home Jim Wynn on a two-out single to win the game. The only thing the Astros couldn’t give on the evening was a home run of their own—but Hofheinz ordered for the exploding electrical scoreboard, which dominated the wall behind the outfield seating, to go into action in the ninth before the game’s guest of honors, President Lyndon Johnson and his wife, left early.

The Astrodome remained the Astros’ home for 35 years until it fell behind the times and was replaced by the more cutting-edge Minute Maid Park (nee Enron Field) in 2000.

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Number 4October 9, 2005: Two Games to Win One

The Astros made their first World Series appearance in 2005, but they might not have gotten there without an exhaustive marathon in Game Three of the NLDS against Atlanta that would become the longest postseason game in major league history.

Before this game, you could approach diehard Astros fans, utter the words “extra innings” and “postseason” in the same sentence and watch them turn instantly pale, tortured by the memory of numerous overtime losses in past playoff games.

Leading the series two games to one, the Astros were trying to clinch at home and avoid a decisive Game Five back at Atlanta. Things didn’t look promising early on when the Braves’ Adam LaRoche pegged a two-out grand slam off Houston starter Brandon Backe, who had loaded the bags by walking two and hitting another. For seven innings, the Astros had little fight, and entered the bottom of the eighth trailing, 6-1. Then they exploded; Lance Berkman matched LaRoche with a grand slam of his own into the Crawford Boxes behind Minute Maid Park’s left-field fence. The Astros still needed a run to tie, and they got it from an unlikely source in the ninth when veteran catcher Brad Ausmus, who’d hit three homers all year long, barely cleared the yellow line in left-center field with two outs.

For the next nine innings, no one could break the 6-6 tie; Roger Clemens, making only the second relief appearance of his career in the 16th when the Astros ran out of relievers, made sure the Braves didn’t strike by hurling three shutout innings while striking out four. After Clemens struck out batting to lead off the bottom of the 18th, rookie Chris Burke, who had entered the game in the tenth as a pinch-runner for Berkman, launched a solo shot to win the game—five hours and 50 minutes after it had begun—and the series.

Number 5October 6, 1980: Feels Like the Very First Time

Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, The Astros took a three-game lead to second-place Los Angeles needing just one win to secure their first-ever trip to the playoffs. They lost all three—each by a run, two in which they led going into the bottom of the eighth inning. The weekend collapse forced a one-game tiebreaker to determine the NL West champion, right back at Dodger Stadium.

The Astros sent Joe Niekro, using the 163rd game as a chance to win his 20th of the year, to the mound. In the other dugout, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda seriously considered starting 19-year-old September call-up Fernando Valenzuela—who had pitched 15.2 innings of relief without allowing a run and had yet to start a game—but instead leaned on experience and chose 31-year-old Dave Goltz, owner of a 7-10 record. Lasorda quickly realized he had made a bad choice by putting Fernandomania on hold for six months, as the Astros knocked Goltz out of the box after three innings, tagging him for four runs on eight hits; two first-inning Dodgers errors that led to two of the runs didn’t help. The Astros then quickly piled it on the Dodgers bullpen, adding three more runs in the fourth, two of them driven in by infielder (and future Houston manager) Art Howe. Given a major cushion, Niekro eased into cruise control and repelled any chance for a Dodgers comeback, scattering a run on six hits in a complete game effort to lift the Astros to a 7-1 win and their first postseason date.

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