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Mike Scott’s no-hitter in ’86 was one for the ages. But it wasn’t the only great playoff-clinching moment in Astros history.
One Sunday morning, several years ago, Brandon Backe sat at his locker doing what young players normally do in the hours before gametime. Hanging out. Saying very little. Doing nothing to draw attention to himself.
This was 2004, arguably the most significant (at that time) of Backe’s Major League career. He spent that season up and down between the minors to the big leagues, mostly as a reliever. Inconsistency and one bout of fatigue-related issues prevented him from gaining any real staying power in the rotation.
But Backe showed enough to merit multiple opportunities with the Astros that year. He had spunk. He had moxie. He had, quite frankly, an attitude. That type of demeanor, paired with hard work, usually buys a kid some extra time while he tries to put the pitching side of things together.
This particular Sunday in 2004 wasn’t like the other Sundays. No, this was the final Sunday of the season, the final game of the season, and the National League Wild Card was on the line. Win the game, go to the playoffs. It was that simple.
The team liked its chances, what, with Roger Clemens scheduled to start and the Astros having enjoyed a streak of 35 wins against 10 losses that catapulted them right into the thick of a hotly-contested Wild Card race.
An hour before gametime, however, things changed. Instead of suiting up for the game, Clemens was laying on a table in the training room, IVs inserted in his arm, trying to fast-forward through a stomach flu that left him sapped of his energy.
Clemens said the right things to the athletic trainers and doctors — “I’m fine, I can pitch” — but his body was saying quite the opposite. As the minutes passed, it was clear it would not be Clemens taking the mound at 1:05 for arguably the most important game of the season.
“Clemens is sick,” manager Phil Garner said to catcher Brad Ausmus, in passing, near the lunch room in the Astros’ clubhouse. “Backe’s pitching.”
Ausmus’ face fell, briefly. Then, perhaps realizing a reporter was watching this exchange, his expression changed. He simply nodded, and walked off.
Inside the locker room, pitching coach Jim Hickey walked up to Backe’s locker and told the 26-year-old righty that he was starting the game. Backe, likely dumbfounded and now with 60 minutes to prepare, nodded silently. Then he headed straight to the bathroom.
Backe put forth a fabulous effort that day. He struck out six and held the Rockies to two runs five hits with two walks. And, he contributed the first two RBIs with a two-run bloop single in the second frame that put the Astros on the board for the first time. The Astros won by two runs, a sold-out Minute Maid Park erupted, and the party was on.
The Astros have had many exciting playoff-clinching moments. Really, in recent history, the only ho-hum clincher was in 1998, only because the Astros were so good that it negated a true division race. They clinched it with about a week-and-a-half left in the season, creating as much drama and suspense as a rerun of “Laverne and Shirley.”
But other than that 102-win season, the Astros have had many, many nail-biting, down-to-the-wire clinchers that happened on the very last day of the season, or close to it.
They had around four days remaining in ’97 when they clinched, but that one was extra-special, because it was their first NL Central division title and their first division winner in 11 years. In 1999, they won the division title while playing the final regular-season game in the Dome, in front of a jam-packed crowd that included almost every former player who had meant anything to the franchise over three-plus decades of baseball in Houston.
Larry Dierker, the manager of the Astros at that time, called the win, and the celebration of history after, “Baseball heaven.”
The 2001 clincher was memorable as well, considering the team they were fighting for the division title was also the team they had to beat on the last day.
The Astros ended the regular season in St. Louis, a week later than originally scheduled because of the tragic events on Sept. 11. They had been in relative cruise control a couple of weeks earlier and looked to be on their way to easily winning the division, but then they spent the better part of one crucial week losing almost every day. So it came down to the last game, and in front of a hostile Busch Stadium crowd, the Astros beat Darryl Kile and the Cardinals, 9-2.
The 2005 Wild Card clincher, like ’04, happened on the final day. The Astros topped the Cubs to finally, and officially, brush away the pesky Phillies, their closest nemesis in the Wild Card race. That push to the finish was even more impressive than the Astros’ 36-10 run from the year before, because this group had to climb out of a 15-30 hole it dug itself into at the start of the season.
The most exciting clincher in Astros history, obviously, was Mike Scott’s no-hitter in 1986. The Astros were expected to do very little in the NL West that year, but heading to the final stretch, there they were, at the top of the standings. Two days before Scott’s game, Jim Deshaies threw a two-hitter. Nolan Ryan followed with a one-hitter over eight innings, after which Alan Ashby said to J.D., prophetically, “I have a feeling Scotty’s going to show both of you up tomorrow.”
Scott no-hit the Giants and the Astros clinched the division. To this day, when eye-witnesses reflect back to that game, their speech patterns speed up and their voices get a little screechy.
Given the historic nature of Scott’s no-hitter, it would be silly to think any other playoff-clincher could possibly trump that one. Polling fans on this one would be just plain silly.
Too bad — we’re doing it anyway! But don’t just cast your vote. I want to know what you remember best from those clinching games. Perhaps you were at the 2004 Backe game. Or maybe you were watching from home, wearing your baseball cap positioned just so atop of your head, the same way you had worn it for all 36 games of the Astros’ 36-10 run that year. Or maybe you were just a kid when the Dome opened and found yourself back there, in person, when it closed down in ’99.
Whatever the memory, please share with us here. We’ve provided plenty of nostalgia for you as we celebrate the club’s 50th anniversary. Now it’s your turn to provide a walk down memory lane.
Links we like:
First, Brett Myers was compared to Charles Dickens. Now, in his latest blog entry, Astros radio announcer Dave Raymond finds parallels between the Astros’ nearly four-hour game with the Dodgers Saturday night and the Chevy Chase classic, “Fletch.” (Personally, I’m skeptical. Chevy Chase makes me laugh, yet the only emotion I felt during the game Saturday was an overwhelming urge to gouge my eyes out).
Dave also gives us some cool Astros-by-the-numbers info. For those of you who haven’t figured it out by now, our affable radio announcer is also a bit of a stat nerd.
In The Crawfish Boxes “Mondays Three Astros Things,” David Coleman discusses why the Astros appear to have come out ahead on the Jobduan Morales-Justin Ruggiano trade. He also focuses on everyone’s favorite topic — Altuve, Altuve and Altuve.
Sure, Altuve is the leading candidate to be an All-Star, but there are others on this roster too, no?