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Houston Has a Problem
Tim Kurkjian
September 02, 1996
The Astros' struggle for survival, on the field and off, A hot Indian's summer, Leagues apart on the strike zone
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September 02, 1996

Houston Has A Problem

The Astros' struggle for survival, on the field and off, A hot Indian's summer, Leagues apart on the strike zone

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In this year of the home run, the endless parade of relievers and the all-too-typical 10-8 score, the Astros' series against the Cardinals last weekend in Houston was all about terrific pitching, dazzling defense and scraping for runs. "Just like old-time baseball," said St. Louis catcher Tom Pagnozzi. "Pitchers going the distance for each team. Great plays. Great baseball."

The Astros came out with a split of the four-game series but hung on to a half-game lead in the National League Central, even after a 3-2 loss to the Cardinals on Monday night. A total of 10 runs were scored in the first three games of the series—an amazingly low total considering that through Sunday a team had scored 10 or more runs in a game 396 times this year. "This is how the game is supposed to be played," said Houston third baseman Sean Berry. "Every hit is important. No big lulls in the game. I think fans like it more this way."

Astros fans loved it, and for a change they showed up in large numbers—an average of 36,807 turned out for the three weekend games, 12,386 more than the average going into the series. That's important because Astros owner Drayton McLane, citing sagging attendance the last three seasons, has threatened to move the team unless the city builds a new stadium for him. He has reported losses of $61.3 million since purchasing the club in November 1992 and has tried for a year to sell to a local buyer, but no one has emerged. Last winter he had a deal to sell the Astros to Virginia businessman Bill Collins, who wanted to move the team to the Washington, D.C., area, but Major League Baseball told McLane that he had to try harder to make things work in Houston or try harder to find a local buyer. Now McLane sees a new stadium as his only hope of bringing out the fans in Houston.

The Astros players responded to the show of support with aggressive baseball. First baseman Jeff Bagwell even slid into first base to beat out an infield grounder. "I spazzed out," he said. "After I did it I thought, That was terrible."

Actually it was exciting—as was the entire series. In the opener the Cardinals won their fourth 1-0 game of the season (that's only two less than the total for the entire American League), with centerfielder Ray Lankford's titanic homer off Darryl Kile in the third inning providing the only run Cards starter Donovan Osborne needed. Then the St. Louis defense, featuring spectacular catches by Lankford and rightfielder Brian Jordan, made the run stand up. "If it weren't for Lankford and Jordan," said Astros pitcher Danny Darwin, "we win that game 5-0."

Game 2 began in similar fashion, when Jordan made a diving catch to take a hit away from Houston leadoff hitter John Cangelosi. But Astros shortstop Orlando Miller brought the game to an electrifying close when he drilled a two-run home run with one out in the ninth for a 3-1 win that had the cheering crowd of 43,258 on its feet. Houston ace Shane Reynolds outdueled Todd Stottlemyre as two pitchers went the distance in the same National League game for only the third time this year.

It was the Astros' first win of the season against St. Louis after seven straight losses. Fittingly, it was Reynolds who ended that streak. His five-hitter ran his record to 16-6, making him second in the league to Atlanta's John Smoltz in victories and winning percentage. Despite that success, Reynolds remains the most unheralded pitching success in baseball. "No one has any idea who I am," Reynolds says with a laugh. "Some pitchers are flashy or overpowering. People love to write about people like that. They don't like writing about guys like me. There's really nothing to me."

Reynolds is a 28-year-old righthander who has a great forkball, a good fastball that registers in the low 90s on the radar gun and marvelous control. He has slowly worked his way to the top of the Houston staff. He was a third-round pick of the Astros in 1989, and his career got a boost when he learned how to throw the forkball while playing winter ball in Venezuela in '91. He got shelled in a brief major league trial a year later, but he found out he was tipping his pitches and corrected that error. In '94 he joined the Astros' rotation only because of an injury to Pete Harnisch, but by this spring he had earned an Opening Day start. His secret: a maniacal work ethic, which includes a daily routine of 1,000 sit-ups, running and lifting weights. "The human body," he says, "can do more than you think."

Cardinals leftfielder Ron Gant proved that in Game 3 on Sunday, when he saved a couple of runs with a running catch on Miller's liner down the line. "I can't believe Gant caught that ball," said Houston manager Terry Collins. But Bagwell homered in the third and singled home a run in the eighth to give the Astros a 4-1 victory. Of the 10 games these teams have played this year, all but one has been decided by three runs or less. And they play another three-game series, in St. Louis, starting on Labor Day. Don't miss it.

Improved Indian

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