5 times Astros clinched a spot ... on the final day

September 27th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Brian McTaggart’s Astros Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

The Astros’ stranglehold on the American League West is a little tenuous entering the final four games of the regular season, with the Rangers leading Houston by 2 1/2 games. Houston is clinging to the final Wild Card spot in the AL with a half-game lead over the Mariners, so the race figures to come down to the wire.

While the Astros have blown away the AL West in recent years -- they’ve won the last five division titles competed in a full season by an average of 11.6 games -- the last week of the regular season has typically been without much drama. That hasn’t always been the case.

Here’s a look at five times the Astros clinched a playoff spot on the final day of the regular season:

1980 NL West
Needing one win against the Dodgers in the final three games of the season to secure the NL West title, the Astros marched into Dodger Stadium and lost three consecutive one-run games, forcing a one-game playoff for the division title the following day. Game No. 163 turned out to be one of the biggest days in Astros history, thanks to a brilliant pitching performance by knuckleballer Joe Niekro, who threw a six-hit complete game, and infielder Art Howe, who went 3-for-5 with a two-run homer in the third inning. The Astros had to fly immediately to Philadelphia and lost an epic NLCS to the Phillies.

2001 NL Central
Having lost seven of their last eight games entering the final day of the season, the Astros still needed one win to clinch their fourth NL Central title in five years. Richard Hidalgo and Jeff Bagwell homered, and Shane Reynolds held St. Louis to one run in 7 1/3 innings for his 100th career win as Houston beat St. Louis, 9-2. The Astros and Cardinals both finished with identical 93-69 records, but the Astros were awarded the division title because they won the season series from St. Louis. The Braves eliminated the Astros in the NLDS for the third time in five seasons.

2004 NL Wild Card
Expectations were sky-high in 2004 after the Astros signed Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens, putting them at the top of the rotation with ace Roy Oswalt. But the Astros stumbled in the first half of the season and were a disappointing 44-44 at the All-Star break. Manager Jimy Williams was fired and replaced by Phil Garner, who led the Astros to a 36-10 record down the stretch -- including winning their final 18 home games -- to clinch the lone NL Wild Card on the final day of the season (finishing one game ahead of the Giants). Brandon Backe started Game 162 in place of Clemens, who was sick, and allowed two runs and five hits in five innings for the win. The Astros beat the Braves in the NLDS before losing to the Cardinals in the NLCS.

2005 NL Wild Card
After winning the first playoff series in franchise history in 2004, the ‘05 Astros got off another poor start at 15-30. They were 19-32 at the end of May and in last place in the NL Central. They trailed the first-place Cardinals by 14 games, prompting the Houston Chronicle to print a tombstone in its June 1 edition, declaring the season was over. Oops. Houston finished 44-18, winning 13 of its final 18 games to reach the playoffs. The Astros clinched the Wild Card on the final day, finishing one game ahead of the Phillies. Houston was the first team make the postseason after falling 15 games under .500 since the 1914 Boston Braves. After beating the Braves in four games in the NLDS and beating the Cardinals in six games in the NLCS, they were swept by the White Sox in the World Series.

2015 AL Wild Card
Coming off a 70-92 season that was a 19-game improvement from the 111-loss club of 2013, the Astros surprisingly made the playoffs under first-year manager A.J. Hinch. They won 14 of 15 games in late April and early May and jumped out into first place in the AL West at 18-7. The Astros spent 139 days in first place before an 11-16 September allowed the Rangers to surpass them and win the division. The Astros clinched the Wild Card on the final day of the season when the Rangers beat the Angels. Houston beat the Yankees in the Wild Card Game before losing in five games to the eventual World Series champion Royals in the ALDS.