10/02/05 8:00 PM ET
Astros take scenic route to postseason
Once at 15-30, Houston made uphill climb to net Wild Card
By Alyson Footer / MLB.com
Take the number 5 and the number 7, for example -- as in, the uniforms of Astros icons Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. There is also 1962, the year the Houston franchise was born, 1998, the year the Astros won the most regular-season games, and 162, the number of games each Major League team plays every year.
And now, we have 15-30. As in, the Astros' record after 45 games, when just about everyone labeled them as the "Team That Would Trade Roger Clemens" by July 31.
But there is another number not so familiar, but much more poignant: 74-43 -- the Astros' record after that terrible start. And it's that number that makes May 24, the day the Astros flopped to 15-30, seem like years ago.
"It's such an amazing feeling to prove so many people wrong," closer Brad Lidge said after the Astros clinched the National League Wild Card on Sunday, setting up an NLDS meeting with the Braves. "To stick with the same team we had, and accomplish what we did, it's an amazing feeling. It just feels like we've proven so many people wrong, and it's a great feeling."
The road to this point wasn't easy. Every loss drew more criticism from media and fans, who chastised the club for letting go of Jeff Kent and Carlos Beltran. Critics noted that the best pitching staff this franchise has ever employed would go to waste because of one of the worst offenses it's had in 10 years.
In many respects, the jabs at the offense were warranted. This club was shut out 17 times, six short of the club record. Clemens was cheated out of at least eight wins, which would put him just over the 20-win mark. Every night, the pitchers took the mound knowing there was absolutely no margin for error.
Yet, as one coach pointed out over the weekend, the Astros are the third-best team in the National League. Record-wise, it's the Cardinals, then the Braves, then the Astros.
And for the sixth time in nine years, the Astros are going to the postseason.
"Joy, jubilation, satisfaction," first-year general manager Tim Purpura said, asked to express his emotions. "It's a relief to be here. We go back to those dog days of April and May when we were 15-30, and everyone had us for dead. We still thought we could do this.
"Maybe we were crazy, but we really felt like we could come out here and play hard every day. That's what you have to do in this game. It's a 162-game grind. If you give up early, you're never going to get to the end and have the finish like we have."
This Astros club is unlike any other, especially the 2004 team. Gone are Kent and Beltran. Bagwell, the backbone of the offense for 14 years, was lost for much of the season.
But the pitching was better, because of Andy Pettitte. The bullpen was unstoppable, because of Russ Springer, Chad Qualls, Dan Wheeler, and of course, Lidge.
A couple of kids, Jason Lane and Willy Taveras, were asked to fill big shoes. Lane knocked 26 homers and drove in 78 runs, and Taveras is a leading candidate to win Rookie of the Year honors.
Minute Maid Park
Last year, the Astros seemingly decided the crowd noise gave them a little added home-field advantage during their playoff run, and the roof of Minute Maid Park remained closed.
Considering the roof was shut for most of the regular season this year, it's safe to say the lid will remain closed through October again this time.
Minute Maid Park, which has showcased three posteasons including 2005, since it opened six years ago, offers several unique elements. A replica of a 19th century locomotive, circa 1860, weighs close to 50,000 pounds and runs along 800 feet along the low roof track that spans from left field to center field. When the Astros hit a home run, the train chugs and snorts its way down the tracks.
On the playing field, a 10-degree hill sits toward the back of center field, representing the deepest part of the ballpark. Named "Tal's Hill" after the club president who came up with the idea, Tal Smith, the slope sports a flag pole in the field of play that creates unique actions for any ball that gets past an outfielder.
The overall seating capacity of Minute Maid Park is 40,950, and the most popular seating area is the Crawford Boxes, located in left field. As soon as the gates open, fans pour into that area, knowing it's the best place to catch a batting practice homer.
The distance down the left-field line is short, just 315 feet, but the furthest point of the park in center is one of the deepest in baseball at 436 feet. The left-field power alley spans 362 feet, while the right-field alley extends to 373 feet. The distance down the right-field line is 326 feet.
Different look, same results.
"This year, we've done it with some guys that fans weren't used to seeing," Bagwell said. "Willy Taveras, Jason Lane, Morgan Ensberg ... those are the guys that helped us get here. It's not just the Biggios, the Bagwells, [Brad] Ausmus, Kent ... whatever the lineup was. We're not that kind of team.
"We're the kind of team that's going to win on pitching, on the bullpen, while we try to get enough runs to win."
For those reasons, Biggio ranked this postseason clinch as the sweetest of the six he's been a part of.
"This one has got to rank up there as maybe the best," he said. "You're 15-30. You're coming from a long way back. You continue to play, stay focused and concentrate in winning two out of three [each series]. We were able to do that.
"That just tells you a lot about the guys in this clubhouse. We had a good mix of young and old guys that really worked well together. Guys never gave up, continued to work. This ranks up there pretty high."
Purpura, who drew the second-highest amount of criticism after the shaky start, next to only club owner Drayton McLane, marveled at the winning tradition the Astros have built in the last decade.
"As an organization, we've done some pretty amazing things to get ourselves in a position to win on a regular basis," Purpura said. "That's the ethic of what we have here. We expect to win. I see a lot of comparisons to us and Atlanta. There's just that expectation that you come here to win. You don't come here to give a half-effort.
"That's the ethic that was started by Bagwell and Biggio and continues with Clemens and Pettitte, and I fully expect that the Ensbergs and Everetts of our club will continue that."
It appears this generation of Astros is ready for the next chapter. The page turns on Wednesday, in Atlanta.
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.