Baseball in Houston is a cup of tea at Starbucks, an order of salmon at The Palm or a car ride through Venice. It has an odd ring to it. Forty-one years after the major leagues came to Houston and pandered to Texans by naming the expansion team after a firearm—the Colt .45s—the fourth-largest city in America is a backwater outpost on the baseball map.
"It's not a baseball town," says Billy Wagner, the closer for the team that has been known as the Astros since 1965. "Football is king. It's hard to compare it to St. Louis, Chicago and other baseball towns where the fans are knowledgeable about the game. Sometimes here they're not sure when to cheer and when to boo."
Says Houston general manager Gerry Hunsicker, "Last month we had a series against the Chicago Cubs with first place on the line, and we had nowhere near sellout crowds. Baseball has always taken a backseat to football here."
The Astros, of course, have been easy to overlook, even when dressed in those famously loud-striped 1980s uniforms inspired by laundry detergent boxes. No city has waited more seasons for its first World Series than Houston. Worse still, the Astros haven't won a playoff series of any kind, losing all seven while dropping 22 of 30 postseason games.
Last Saturday night, however, a roar went up in Houston that seemed to echo across all those empty years. A sellout crowd at Minute Maid Park stood and cheered, and this time the bellowing wasn't in response to the announcement of college football scores, the appropriately twangy version of Deep in the Heart of Texas during the seventh-inning stretch, or the prices of natural gas, crude oil, unleaded gas and heating oil that are posted like out-of-town scores on a rightfield message board. This time it was purely about baseball, as Wagner whizzed a 99-mph fastball past an awestruck Scott Rolen to finish a 2-0 win over the St. Louis Cardinals.
Not only did the victory keep Houston in first place in the National League Central and virtually remove St. Louis from postseason contention, but it also gave Astros fans reason to believe that their baseball team might—hold on to your 10-gallon hat, pardners—command their attention deep into football season. Ace righthander Roy Oswalt, making his second start after missing six weeks with a strained groin, dominated the Cardinals for seven innings. That outing followed a 14-5 win the previous night, in which righthander Wade Miller permitted St. Louis just two hits and two runs over six innings.
It was only the second time this year that Oswalt, who hit 95 mph on the radar gun, and Miller, who touched 97, won back-to-back games. The combined line for the Houston rockets: 13 innings, six hits, two runs, 13 strikeouts and one energized clubhouse. "That's the best they've been all year," catcher Brad Ausmus said after Saturday's win, "and it's the best possible time for it."
The Astros completed the sweep with a 4-1 win on Sunday, leaving them two games ahead of the Cubs and 5� up on the Cards with 13 games to play: three in Colorado against the Rockies (who were 45-27 at home) and three in St. Louis, then a final homestand with three games against the NL West-leading San Francisco Giants and four against the Milwaukee Brewers. The Cubs, meanwhile, get a steady diet of cupcakes for their final 13 games: the New York Mets, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds.
Until the weekend Oswalt and Miller had been the source of anxiety for Houston. On Sept. 8, when Oswalt (8-5) came off the DL for the third time this season, he allowed four runs in five innings of an 8-4 win over the Brewers. Miller (13-12) had thrown so poorly in his previous start—his fastball was clocked at 87 mph—that Hunsicker says he feared the pitcher was hurt. Miller wrote off the outing to a "dead arm," a common affliction for pitchers over a long season, and underwent four days of massages and hot and cold treatments to promote blood flow.
Without Oswalt and Miller in top form, this is just another forgettable Houston team. Though the Astros ranked fourth in the league in runs at week's end, they "have no players having big years," Hunsicker says. "Some are having average years, and a lot are below average. The offense is where the money is on this team, and those players haven't performed up to expectations."