This is the first in what will be a series of indeterminate length focusing in no particular order on the players and personalities that foiled the Houston Astros as a franchise. I have a list about a quarter of a mile long, but if you have anyone in mind for a future post, please feel free to leave it in the comments.
Ah hell Kevin Brown. The broomstick in the spokes of our collective bicycle. This freaking guy. Kevin F. Brown. Drafted out of Georgia Tech as the 4th overall pick by the Rangers in 1986 (because the Rangers had been trash for far longer than the Astros), Brown actually made his Major League debut later that season in a September 30 start where he threw 5IP, 6H/2ER, 4K:0BB. Brown wouldn't make it back to North Duncanville until 1988, but from 1989-1994 Brown threw 1250.1IP with a 3.80 ERA/1.36 WHIP. In 1992 he led the league in wins (21) and IP (265.2IP), but also led the league in hits allowed, something he would do again in the strike-shortened 1994 season. Naturally the Rangers let him go in free agency.
Brown spent the 1995 season with the Orioles and then signed as a free agent with the Florida Marlins. He led the NL with a 1.89 ERA and a 0.94 WHIP in 1996. The following year he went 16-8 for Florida, who then won the 1997 World Series, though not necessarily because of Brown: In two starts in the 1997 World Series, Brown threw 11IP, 15H/10ER, 6K:5BB in two home starts.
But because Jeffrey Loria is a reprehensible human being and a discredit to the game of baseball, he traded off most of the valuable pieces from that World Series team, including Brown, who was sent to the Padres for Steve Hoff, Derrek Lee, and Rafael Medina.
And that's where our post really begins. Brown only spent one season with the Padres: 1998. He went 18-7 and allowed a league-best 0.3 HR/9. Though he generally was able to keep the ball in the park, Qualcomm suited him. And the 1998 Padres were really, really good, going 98-64 with a lineup led by Tony Gwynn (.865 OPS), Ken Caminiti (.862 OPS), Wally Joyner (.824 OPS). But Greg Vaughn carried the offense, hitting .272/.363/.597 with 50 homers and 119 RBI in 1998, the middle of a three-year stretch in which he hit 136 homers.
Brown anchored the pitching staff with his 2.38 ERA/1.07 WHIP. He struck out 257 and only walked 49. He had faced the Astros once during the 1998 regular season, a home game on July 26 in which the Padres won 5-4. Brown threw 8IP, 7H/3ER, 10K:0BB, starting a three-game streak where he struck out 31 batters and walked just one. Brown was dialed in.
The 1998 Astros were also dialed in. They finished 1st in runs scored, 2nd in batting average. Biggio was enjoying perhaps the finest season of his HOF career in which he would end the year with a .325/.403/.503 line. Bagwell hit .304/.424/.557 with 90 strikeouts and 109 walks. Moises Alou - another sell-off from the 1997 Marlins - was in his first season in Houston and hit .312/.399/.582 and would finish 3rd in NL MVP voting behind Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire whose 1998 exploits are well known.
The top four of the Astros' rotation were Shane Reynolds, Jose Lima, Mike Hampton and Sean Bergman. But the game-changer came at the trade deadline when the Astros acquired Randy Johnson from the Mariners in order to make a run at the first World Series in franchise history.
There wasn't much in the way of a pennant race in the NL. The Braves won their division by 18 games. The Astros by 12.5 games, and the Padres by 9.5 games. The Cubs took the Wild Card by a game over the Giants, meaning the 90-73 Cubs would face the 106-56 Braves, and leaving the 98-64 Padres to face the 102-60 Astros.
Game 1 was on Tuesday, September 29, 3:07pm at the Astrodome. Brown vs Randy Johnson - precisely the stage for which the Astros acquired Johnson. Johnson started off the 1st with two strikeouts. Biggio drew an 8-pitch walk to lead off the bottom half of the first inning, but a Bill Spiers grounder to second took them both out. Derek Bell struck out looking. Johnson worked around two 2nd inning singles to leave the game scoreless. Brown struck out Bagwell, got Moises Alou to groundout to deep third base, and struck out Carl Everett.
The Astros had a chance in the bottom of the 3rd. Tied 0-0 with one out Brad Ausmus singled on a line drive up the middle. Two Kevin Brown passed balls - with Randy Johnson at the plate - advanced Ausmus to 3rd. Johnson and Biggio both struck out to end the threat.
Johnson allowed a leadoff single to Greg Vaughn who was picked off two batters later. Two flyballs ended the Padres' top of the 4th. The Astros were retired in order in the bottom half. Brown had thrown 59 pitches. Johnson again worked out of trouble in the top of the 5th, allowing a leadoff walk to Steve Finley and a single to catcher Carlos Hernandez. A force out at 3B, bunt pop-up (by Kevin Brown) and a strikeout left two men on. Brown again retired the side in order in the bottom of the 5th with two more strikeouts.
The game was tied 0-0 in the top of the 6th. Tony Gwynn led off the inning with a double to left. Greg Vaughn and Ken Caminiti hit back-to-back singles to load the bases to bring up Jim Leyritz. He hit a deep sac fly to left, scoring Gwynn and advancing Vaughn and Caminiti to 3rd and 2nd, respectively. Johnson escaped with just the one run allowed. 1-0 Padres. In the bottom half, Ausmus led off the inning with a single - yes, Brad Ausmus had the only two Astros hits through six innings - and advanced on Randy Johnson's foul-out bunt attempt. Biggio was hit by a pitch to put runners on 1st and 2nd. Bill Spiers grounded out, but slowly and enough to the right that they each advanced a base. Derek Bell struck out on five pitches to end the inning. Through six innings, Brown had struck out 11 Astros.
Johnson again allowed a leadoff single, but struck out two more and got a lineout to get out of the inning. Bagwell-Alou-Everett went down in order, with two more strikeouts, on 11 pitches. Greg Vaughn led off the 8th with a towering home run to left, giving the Padres a 2-0 lead. Johnson struck out Caminiti and got two groundballs to give the Astros six outs remaining. Brown struck out the side, with a Dave Clark walk mixed in with two outs.
Johnson's day done, the Astros turned to reliever Jay Powell. He got a groundout, walk, strikeout, wild pitch, and HBP to end his day after 16 pitches and two men on. Doug Henry struck out Rene Rivera to end the inning with the Astros down to their final three outs.
Trevor Hoffman, who had saved a league-leading 53 games in 1998 (and finished 2nd in Cy Young voting) came in to close the game out. Bill Spiers doubled down the 3B line to lead off the bottom of the 9th and bring the tying run to the plate. Derek Bell hit a pop fly to RF on the first pitch, Bagwell struck out swinging on four pitches. On a 2-0 count, Moises Alou knocked a single to 3B, but a Caminiti error allowed Spiers to score. Carl Everett - the go-ahead run with a 3-1 count - sent the ball to center, allowing Steve Finley to settle under it and end the game.
Kevin Brown's line: 8IP, 2H/0ER, 16K:2BB, 119 pitches / 77 for strikes, 38 of them non-contact strikes. A 92 Game Score.
Randy Johnson: 8IP, 9H/2ER, 9K:1BB, 106 pitches / 78 strikes, 38 of them non-contact strikes. A 64 Game Score.
Derek Bell, Jeff Bagwell, and Moises Alou went 0x11 with 6Ks.
Manager Larry Dierker told the LA Times: "Other than pitching a no-hitter, he couldn't have been much better...(Brown) has always been good against us, but this was the most dominant I've seen him, and that was the difference. Randy had good stuff but not his best stuff. Brown had his best stuff."
Randy Johnson: "Some of (Brown's) pitches seemed to defy gravity."
Brown: "Obviously, when you're going against Randy you know it's going to be a low-scoring game and that you have to concentrate on every pitch. But I'm not pitching against Randy. I'm pitching against the Houston hitters."
Game 2 looked hopeless. Jim Leyritz hit a two-run homer in the top of the 9th to tie the game at 4-4, but with Ricky Gutierrez on 2nd and Biggio up, Gutierrez stole 3B off of Hoffman, forcing Hoffman to intentionally walk Biggio to put Spiers up to bat. Spiers delivered a 1-2 pitch between 1st and 2nd base, scoring Gutierrez with the Astros winning 5-4 to tie the series 1-1.
The Padres threw Brown on three days' rest in Game 3 back in San Diego to face Mike Hampton (Dierker flirted with the possibility of a Game 1 rematch between Brown and Randy Johnson had the Astros lost Game 2). Brown struck out Biggio on four pitches to lead off the game. Spiers and Bell were easily retired to end the 1st. Nine total innings against Houston? 17 strikeouts for Brown. Hampton retired the Padres on eight pitches to end the 1st. In the second inning, Brown hit Bagwell with a pitch and Alou followed with a single. A Carl Everett GIDP sent Bagwell to 3B with two outs. Brown walked Ricky Gutierrez before Ausmus grounded weakly to 3B, ending the threat. 21 of the next 23 batters would be retired by both pitchers, the game again at 0-0 through 5IP. Brown walked Spiers after getting Biggio to groundout, but Bell struck out and Bagwell hit a pop fly to deep right-center field to end the inning.
Hampton allowed a single to lead off the 6th, Kevin Brown laid down a sac bunt to advance Chris Gomez and Quilvio Veras singled to advance Gomez to 3rd. A Tony Gwynn groundout got Veras at 2B but Gwynn beat the throw to allow Gomez to score and the Padres a 1-0 lead. Gwynn advanced on a Hampton wild pitch before Greg Vaughn struck out on six pitches.
Behind 1-0, Moises Alou and Carl Everett led off the inning with consecutive singles, but Alou was thrown out by Tony Gwynn at 3B trying to take the extra base. Brown hit Ricky Gutierrez with a pitch to put runners on 1st and 2nd. A deep enough fly ball from Brad Ausmus got Everett to 3B with Hampton's spot up. Pinch-hitter Dave Clark drew a 5-pitch walk to load the bases, followed by a 5-pitch walk to Craig Biggio to bring in Carl Everett and tie the game at 1-1. Brown's day was done after 6.2IP. Future Astros reliever Dan Miceli struck out Bill Spiers on three pitches to leave the bases loaded.
Scott Elarton took over for Hampton and got a 1st-pitch pop up from Caminiti. One batter later Jim Leyritz deposited a 1-0 pitch into Qualcomm Stadium. Elarton hit a batter but limited the damage to just the one run. 2-1 Padres lead. Derek Bell got a lead-off single to open the 8th, but Bagwell struck out and Alou GIDP'd to end the inning. Elarton walked pinch-hitter Mark Sweeney to lead off the bottom of the 8th, caught him stealing two pitches later, and then struck out Veras and Gwynn to give the Astros three more outs.
Trevor Hoffman struck out the side on 14 pitches, giving the Padres a 2-1 series lead.
Kevin Brown's line: An uglier 3H/1ER, 5K:5BB with 2HBPs. But in 14.2IP, Brown had allowed 5H/1ER, 21K:7BB.
One day later, Sunday night, October 4, 1998, the Padres finished off the Astros and their 102 wins when Sterling Hitchcock did enough to beat Randy Johnson. Johnson threw 6IP, 3H/2R (1ER), 8K:1BB but the Astros offense was again a no-show. Trever Miller, Doug Henry, and Jay Powell combined for 2IP of "relief" but allowed 4H/4ER, with 1K:3BB. Jim Leyritz - yet again - homered. John Vander Wal hit a 2-run pinch-hit triple in the 8th off Jay Powell to give the Padres a 4-1 lead. One batter later, Wally Joyner hit a two-run homer off Powell to make it 6-1. The Astros went down in order on 12 pitches to end the game and the four-game series.
The Padres would beat the Braves in the NLCS and get swept by the Yankees in the World Series. Brown would only make it back to the playoffs with the Yankees one more time, in 2004.