Coming off the most successful season in club history, which included their first playoff series victory prior to a loss in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series to the Cardinals, the Astros were rocked by a topsy-turvy offseason in the winter of 2004.
Gerry Hunsicker’s successful run as general manager ended abruptly when he stepped down Nov. 1 and was replaced by Tim Purpura. A few days later, Lance Berkman, the team’s best offensive player, tore his ACL while playing in a church pickup flag football game -- an injury that was set to sideline him the first two months of the season.
In the weeks to follow, All-Stars Jeff Kent and Carlos Beltrán left the club in a pair of messy free-agent departures. And when you consider Hall of Fame slugger Jeff Bagwell’s arthritic right shoulder was in tatters, there was reason for concern.
Still, with Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt anchoring the rotation, the Astros had a shot heading into the 2005 season. They wound up winning their first NL pennant and advancing to the World Series, getting swept by the White Sox. But how they got there was anything but routine.
They stumbled, fumbled and floundered their way to a 15-30 start that prompted the Houston Chronicle to proclaim, with a full-page tombstone on June 1, that their season was all but over. The Astros became the first team since the 1914 Boston Braves to make the postseason after falling to 15 games under.
On the 15th anniversary of the Houston sports’ equivalent of “Dewey defeats Truman” headline, we spoke to many of the key figures for an inside look at how the Astros never stopped believing as the losses continued to pile up.
Jeff Bagwell, first baseman: Obviously, you lose Kent, Beltrán, and Lance is hurt, that’s big-time numbers and big-time hitters. Matter of fact, some of the best I’ve ever seen. Obviously, you’re behind the eight ball, but when you’re rolling out Roger, Andy and Roy, and [Brad] Lidge at the back, you still feel pretty good. But in no way, shape or form did you expect what happened at the beginning.
Brad Ausmus, catcher: You always have a chance when you have pitching. You knew Lance was hurt. He was coming off the knee injury, but he supposedly was going to be ready. Whether he was 100 percent or not, there was always going to be a question mark. The bigger question mark, really, was Baggy’s shoulder. How much was he going to be able to play?
Bagwell: My shoulder was giving out, and just in order to get out of Spring Training at that point was such a difficult thing for me to do, so I was kind of on borrowed time.
The Astros opened the season with a 4-1 homestand and hit the road looking to keep the early momentum going. It didn’t take long for concerns to arise. They were swept at the Mets and lost two of three at Cincinnati. After another solid homestand, the Astros were swept at the Cardinals and Pirates. Suddenly, the Astros were 1-10 on the road, having been shut out four times.
Craig Biggio, second baseman: If you could look for a way to lose a baseball game, we could find a way to lose it. It wasn’t just one guy.
With the offense sputtering and the losses piling up -- the Astros were 9-13 in April -- Bagwell’s shoulder became a growing concern. His shoulder had been deteriorating for years, and when he pulled himself out of the lineup on May 4, it turned out to be a watershed moment. Bagwell had surgery and wouldn’t play again until September. His career as a first baseman, though, was over.
Bagwell: I was a shell of myself.
Meanwhile, Berkman knew the club needed some offensive help. He sped up his rehab with hopes of rejoining the club quicker than previously planned. Instead of missing the first two months, Berkman returned in early May, right when things were really going poorly.
Lance Berkman, outfield/first base: I had surgery in November, so like six months would be May, and that’s like the minimum recovery time from an ACL. Heading into the season, I was planning on being out for all of April and May, and then it was desperate times. I kind of rushed back from that ACL tear.
The Astros were outscored 51-16 during a six-game losing streak in early May that ended with a Mother's Day rout in Atlanta on May 8. Former Astros lefty Mike Hampton threw a two-hit shutout and hit a home run for the Braves, while three Astros pitchers -- Ezequiel Astacio, Brandon Duckworth and Chad Harville -- combined to allow 16 runs. The Astros were 11-19.
In his postgame meeting with reporters, manager Phil Garner said: "We've been shut out how many times on the road? Five times? Is that some sort of record? It's got to be. Nobody can stink it up that bad. Five times we're shut out already, and the season's how old? How many games have we played on the road? Fifteen stinking games on the road and we're shut out a third of them? You can't even try to do that."
Ausmus: I remember we were all kind of flabbergasted how poorly the offense was just based on the personnel we have.
Biggio: Tim [Purpura] is probably like, ‘I’ve got the greatest team ever and this is going to be the biggest bust in the world.’
Morgan Ensberg, third baseman: Lance would come in before a game, and he'd say something to the effect of -- in the only way Lance can deliver it: ‘Hey, if you don't want to lose, don't give up any runs.’ We knew we weren't scoring a lot of runs, obviously. He was doing the counter, to make us laugh.
RESCUED BY THE ROCKET
If not for one win in Florida in the middle of the road trip, the Astros' losing streak would have lasted 11 games. But they beat the Marlins on May 9, 2-1, behind a sterling outing from Clemens -- seven shutout innings with six strikeouts. The win was just the Astros' second on the road, against 14 losses. Clemens stood at the door of clubhouse after the game, high-fiving each player as they walked in.
Brad Lidge, closer: I do remember that, because when a team leader like Clemens gets fired up after a win, it might be one game in Florida in May, it can sometimes mean a lot more. When you’re still a young player, it really fires you up to see emotion and some fire and attitude from the leaders. In my career, that’s one thing that always fired me up is when I see passion from the team leaders and the veteran guys. When Clemens goes out there and we right the ship the next day and he’s pumped up, then how can you not be as a young player?
But after a 6-3 loss to the Giants on May 12 in Houston in which the Astros committed four errors, Garner closed the clubhouse for 30 minutes postgame and lit into his players. They were in the midst of 10 losses in 11 games.
Lidge: We needed to have it, that’s for sure. We needed a little Garner kick in the ass to be totally honest. I think he kind of unloaded a little bit, and rightly so.
Phil Garner, manager: Brad Ausmus is a great one to sort of get a feel for the club. I would look at Brad, and if he had an interested look on his face, then I knew the message got across. If I got one of those, ‘What the hell were you talking about?’ kind of looks, then it was, ‘Uh oh, that wasn't such a good meeting. I need to stop.’ Brad was beautiful like that.
The free fall continued in Arlington, during an Interleague series with the Rangers. On May 21, Astacio allowed nine runs over 1 2/3 innings. The Astros were down 10-0 right away. They allowed a total of eight home runs, and they lost 18-3, dropping to 15-27 on the year. And it was a day game -- the temperature at first pitch at the Rangers' open-air ballpark was 96 degrees.
Ensberg: It was one of the hottest games of my life. And we were immediately out of it. I remember thinking, 'This is the worst version of a loss.' Nothing went right. But I did hit a home run in that game (laughs).
Adam Everett, shortstop: They beat the living dog mess out of us.
Ensberg: Around that time, when you have a loss like that under those circumstances, you're thinking, 'How much more can I take? We'll go through it, but where exactly is the bottom of this deal? Is there a landing spot?' This whole time is a full-blown free fall. And we cannot pull the chute. We're trying to figure out how to try to get something, get our feet under us. And we can't do it.
The Astros were shut out by the Rangers the next day. Garner: "Just save your stories. Just change the date on it." The Astros lost two more after that, dropping them to a woeful 2-21 on the road, extending their losing streak to a season-long seven games. They stopped the bleeding with a 5-1 win at Wrigley Field, but then dropped the first game in Milwaukee, 3-0. It was the seventh time they were shut out on the road.
Ausmus: After the first game of the series, we lost and Gar was kind of pissed and was like yelling at Phil [Rozewicz, visiting clubhouse manager]. ‘Get me a Yuengling, Phil!’ I think he snapped at us and went in his office and yelled at Phil to get him a beer.
Garner: I walked out of the room and said, ‘Dammit Rozewicz, get me a cold beer for God's sake.' The players started snickering. It did break the ice a little bit. I was mad, though. I was really mad.
The Astros won the next two in Milwaukee, capturing their first road series win of the season. They had been 0-8. Garner lit up a cigar in his office to commemorate the occasion.
Things came to a definitive boil on June 1. The Astros were 19-32, and the front page of the Houston Chronicle sports section, printed a large graphic of a tombstone with a headline that read "The cold hard truth: It's off." Printed on the tombstone was "RIP Astros season; April 5, 2005-June 1, 2005." The subhead read "Yes, there are 111 games left on the schedule, but the Astros might as well start thinking about next year." There were two reactions inside the Astros' clubhouse. For some, it didn't go over well. For others, it made no difference.
Berkman: I remember it being like, kind of like, ha ha. I don’t remember anybody being outraged about it.
Ausmus: I know it did piss off some of the guys. I know Lance wasn’t really happy about it, and Lance tends to be pretty vocal about things when he’s not happy. I take those things with a grain of salt. It certainly didn’t hurt motivation.
Biggio: That didn’t bother me at all. We deserved it. We were playing like crap.
Chris Burke, outfielder: I remember Phil saying, 'Guys, every team has a month where they play way worse than they should and a month where they play way better than they should. We just had our month where we played terrible. It's going to get better.'
Jason Lane, outfielder: I remember guys talking about the tombstone article some, but I felt like we weren’t that bad. I remember guys not buying into the article. If anything, it made us closer as a unit.
Berkman: Retrospectively, it’s become a bigger deal than it was at the time. There’s a little bit of revisionist history. I don’t remember there being any reaction other than, ‘Oh yeah, look at the Chronicle, haha. Let’s go play.’
Lidge: I think it was like, ‘Whoa!’ I think for me and a lot of us, we looked at that and said, ‘It's total crap, man. No way are they trying to bury us when we have the team we do.’
Bagwell: Articles are going to be written -- good, bad, indifferent. That has nothing to do with the players. You can be mad at somebody writing something about you personally, but this was about the entire team. You can look at it any way you want. But we deserved what that article is about.
Tim Purpura, general manager: I was ticked off, I really was. I thought it was really unfair to intimate that our season was done. When Garner came in, we got together and I said, ‘I want to talk to these guys.’ There was no prepared speech, no notes. I basically said, ‘The Chronicle may think our season's over, but I don't.’ I just wanted to convey to those guys, we're not going to tear this thing apart.
Burke: Purpura did the right thing -- saying, ‘I believe in you guys, we put this team together expecting to win, we can win, we're not going to sell off guys.’ It was absolutely the right move in his seat. As players, I thought it was just a very calming perspective.
Lidge: I think we were strolling along, and the season was getting a little bit deeper, and all of a sudden something like that comes down, and it's a wake-up call. It's like, ‘Wait a minute, if we don't turn this around, they could be right. That could be us. No way can that happen.’ I think a lot of guys really … that fueled a lot of people. Even though they might not say that article or that paper did directly, but I think the thought of it really started to fuel guys.
Berkman: I do remember Doug Mansolino, our [third-base] coach, he got pissed when that Tombstone [printed], and I remember him going around saying we’re going to win 50 before we lost 50. ‘I bet you anything we win 50 games before we lose 50 games!’ You had to put together a pretty good run, 35-20. We had to play 15 games over .500, which we ended up doing. I do remember him going around and saying that when that tombstone came out.
Perhaps coincidentally, the Astros had started to turn a corner right around the time the tombstone headline came out. Beginning June 1, they won seven of 10, including series wins against the Mets and Blue Jays. A five-game winning streak ended in Baltimore with a three-game sweep to the Orioles, but to some of the younger players on the team at the time, that series is remembered as a turning point as much as some of the prior wins.
A timely home run? No. A well-placed base hit in the late innings? No. A strong performance by one of the Astros' big three starters? No.
It was actually a gaffe by the affable, entertaining Berkman that reminded some on the team that’s it’s OK to breathe, and even laugh a little.
Burke: I'm in the middle of a horrendous slump, I think I was 1-for-20. I'm standing out in left field contemplating selling insurance. Then Lance makes a diving catch to his right at first base. He should have gotten up and thrown from his knees to Andy and had a 3-6-1 double play. But Lance continues to stay on the ground.
Everett: All of a sudden, he comes sprinting off the field. He takes off and he falls down and grabs his knee. He went down like a sack of potatoes.
Burke: Lance always had that waddle to his jog. It was exaggerated in this early post-ACL surgery. He goes waddling off the field. I remember thinking, 'Oh no, he hurt his knee again.' I'm in left field going, 'This isn't good.' Phil and [head athletic trainer] Dave [Labossiere] run out and Berkman's like, 'What are you doing out here?' They said, 'Are you OK?' He said, 'What do you mean?' They said, 'Why are you running off the field? There's two outs.'
Everett: Lance gets up and runs back to first base. He goes, 'I forgot how many outs there were.' They charged us with a mound visit.
Burke: I remember seeing Andy walk back to the mound with a half-smile. He just kind of put his hands in the air. You had to laugh.
Everett: At that point, I said, 'OK, we've got to get back to having fun.' That might have been a turning point, because Lance brought that sense of, ‘I don't care, I'm going to have fun.’ Here comes Lance, ho ho hum, doing his thing. It's honestly what we needed to get us going. I hate to put it all on one person, but he had a lot to do with it.
Burke: That was just Lance. Instead of being apologetic or humbly falling on the sword and saying I forgot how many outs there were, it's like, 'Look guys, there's a time and place for everything. And sometimes, you just have to fake an injury.'
ON THE RISE
Suddenly, the wins began to pile up. The Astros beat the Rockies, 7-1, on June 29 to improve to 35-41 with their ninth win in 12 games. Biggio set the all-time hit-by-pitch record when he was plunked by Rockies pitcher Byung-Hyun Kim. After beating the Padres on July 6, the Astros were 41-42. Garner, when asked throughout the season about whether the Astros could scramble back into the playoff race, would repeatedly tell reporters the team had to first get to .500 before he could entertain any of that kind of talk.
Bagwell: That irritated the hell of me. I didn’t want to be .500 (laughs). Gar had to come up with something to keep us motivated. Generally, you’ve got to be motivated as a player and as a teammate. Gar was saying, ‘Let’s get to .500.’ It was kind of a little bit of a rallying cry. That is a number that’s reachable, and then you go from there after that. It made sense. Being around for a long time like I have, and Craig had been, you’re like, ‘.500? What the hell is that going to get us?’ But hey, it worked.
Lidge: Can we get close to .500 before the second half starts? If we can, then I have no doubt we’re going to be in the postseason.
Roy Oswalt, pitcher: We had three guys that were going to win damn near 60 games. If you can squeak out 20 games among the other two starters and a couple of bullpen guys, you've got 80 wins there. That's the way I looked at it the whole time.
Brandon Backe, pitcher: I don't remember exactly when the turnaround happened, but I just know it started getting better. We started winning a lot of close games. When you can win close games, then you start to feel good. The ball was falling on our side of the fence instead of their side.
In the penultimate games before the All-Star break, the Astros beat the Dodgers, 4-2, to improve to 43-43. They were 28-13 since their 15-30 start and had clawed back to within six games back in the NL Wild Card race. "With the way we started out and how many games below .500 we were, it's certainly an accomplishment," Mike Lamb told the Houston Chronicle postgame. "Our work isn't done. We still have half a season to go. We could lose [the next game] and be back under .500 at the All-Star break."
The Astros posted baseball’s best record from June 1 to the end of the regular season, going 70-41. They were 16-9 in June and 22-7 in July. On Aug. 1, they were 57-48 and had a one-game lead over the Nationals in the NL Wild Card race. Despite the return of Bagwell as a pinch-hitter in September, the Astros never got closer than nine games of the Cardinals in the final two months and wound up clinching the NL Wild Card on the final day of the season to finish one game ahead of the Phillies.
No win was bigger in that span than an 8-6 victory in Philadelphia on Sept. 7 in which Biggio hit a dramatic two-out, three-run homer in the ninth inning off former teammate Billy Wagner. Summing up the game, legendary Phillies announcer Harry Kalas bellowed, “Two hits, one error, three runs -- all of them unearned, but who cares?”
The Astros eliminated the Braves in the NL Division Series for the second year in a row, clinching a trip to the NL Championship Series on a dramatic walk-off homer by Burke in the 18th inning of Game 4 at Minute Maid Park. Houston beat St. Louis in six games to win the pennant, overcoming a dramatic ninth-inning homer by Albert Pujols in Houston in Game 5 to ride the pitching of Oswalt to a Game 6 win in St. Louis.
Several months earlier, on June 24, Astros owner Drayton McLane had promised to buy Oswalt a bulldozer if he could pitch the Astros into the World Series. He delivered on his promise by presenting Oswalt a yellow Caterpillar D6 bulldozer that cost him $230,000 a few weeks later.
Oswalt: We started going back and forth and were laughing. I figured, heck, he ought to just give that bulldozer to me if I pitch us into the World Series. He said, ‘If you pitch us into the World Series, I'll buy you one.’ I said ‘OK.’
The Astros ran into a red-hot White Sox team in the World Series and were swept in four tight games in which Chicago outscored Houston by just six runs. Considering the Astros left themselves no room for error after a 15-30 start in May, they simply ran out of gas in late October.
Lidge: That was a tough wall for us to run into. I do think there’s something to getting to the World Series for the first time and feeling like that’s the major accomplishment as opposed to feeling like this isn’t good enough, we need to win this thing.
Bagwell: That’s the irritating part. We just didn’t hit. We had a hell of a run to get there, though.
Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.
Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.