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Sympathy for the Astros (or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Fact that Houston F&%^s the Phils Pretty Much Every Year)

It was actually a few minutes before Ben Francisco got picked off third base to end the seventh inning in the Phils’ eventual 3-2 loss to the Astros Wednesday that I thought, "I can’t take any more of this." I’d watched the dismal end of the series-opening 3-2 loss to Brett Myers, Michael Bourn, Carlos Lee and the rest of the Houston club Monday night; most of the 16-inning-epic, Ryan Howard and the rabbit-eared replacement ump, Roy Oswalt in LF 4-2 loss Tuesday night, and about the middle five innings of the second 3-2 loss on Wednesday, when Captain Underpants—I think his "real" name is Hunter Pence—and the inevitable Bourn and spurned/returning J.A. Happ put it to the Phils. I was working Thursday, so I missed all of the series finale, but that outcome was pretty much foreordained given the history plus the Wandy Rodriguez/Kyle Kendrick pitching matchup.

Indeed, Houston does this to us just about every year. Last year it was the first weekend in September. I’d gone into the hospital for surgery on the first of the month, a Tuesday, had gotten out on Friday, and was really looking forward to enjoying some baseball while recuperating at home. What I got was a four-game sweep at the hands of the Astros, the last three by one run.  The Phils lost this year’s series to Houston four games to three (it’s hard to remember, but they actually swept the Astros at home back in April); last year’s six games to two (we really have to play these a-holes eight times? Yeah, that’s fair…), actually won the 2008 series four games to three, split six games in ’07, won four of the six in 2006, and went 0-6 in both 2005 (when the Astros beat out the Phils by one lousy game for the wild-card) and 2004. In total, the Phillies are 16-30 against Houston in the last seven seasons, by far their worst record percentage-wise against any NL opponent. 

And here I am about to tell you that no matter how much you and I hate and fear the Astros, longtime Houston fans have far, far more reason to feel that way about the Fightin’ Phils. 

To understand why requires a bit of historical knowledge and perspective. For starters, know that the Astros franchise will be playing their 50th season in 2011 (they were the Colt .45s from 1962-64 before renaming themselves in 1965). Theirs is far from a dismal history, certainly in comparison to the first, say, 120 years of the Phillies’ existence: Houston has a winning record all-time and has made nine playoff appearances, or about one every five and a half years. But they’ve won just one NL pennant, and don’t have a championship flag to raise above whatever their stadium is called these days. The first time they made the playoffs, in their 19th season of existence, might have been their best chance to get one, but the Phillies stopped that Houston team in one of the greatest playoff series in baseball history en route to their own first World Championship.

Like the Phils that year, the 1980 Astros only made the postseason by the skin of their collective teeth. They took a 92-67 record and a three-game lead into the final series of the season against the second-place Dodgers in Los Angeles, and were swept by Tommy Lasorda’s team to force a one-game playoff. But Joe Niekro earned his 20th win of the season in a complete game effort as Houston turned aside LA by a 7-1 score, earning them a trip to Philadelphia for the five-game NLCS (back then, the team with the worse record, in this case the 91-71 Phils, got the first two games at home, then went on the road for the final three).

The Phils won the first game 3-1 behind the pitching of Steve Carlton and Tug McGraw and a two-run homer by Greg Luzinski to take a 1-0 series lead. The next four games all went to extra innings, starting with a 7-4 Astros victory in 10 innings the next night that evened the series at a game apiece. The series shifted to Houston for Game Three, and stayed scoreless through 10 innings; in the top of the 11th, the Phils got two on with two outs, but pinch-hitter Del Unser struck out to end the threat. With McGraw on in his third inning of relief, future Phillie, Hall of Famer and pooh-pooher of sabermetrics Joe Morgan led off with a triple; after two intentional walks, Denny Walling hit a sacrifice fly to left that brought Morgan home with the winning run and gave Houston a 2-1 series lead.

At this point, Astros fans had to be feeling pretty good. Their guys had withstood a serious charge by the battle-hardened Dodgers a week earlier; they’d won back to back extra inning games; and they were looking across the field at a Phillies team notorious for coming up small in October, having lost three NLCS showdowns in the previous four years. But as Walter Sobchak might have put it, Houston was about to enter a world of pain. The Astros scored two runs off Carlton in Game Four and chased the eventual Cy Young Award winner with an out in the sixth, carrying that 2-0 lead into the eighth inning. But the Phils came back with a three-spot off Vern Ruhle and Dave Smith to take a 3-2 lead. The Astros tied it in the bottom of the ninth off Warren Brusstar, but the Phils came back with two more in the top of the 10th on a Pete Rose single and, with two outs, consecutive doubles by Luzinski and Manny Trillo. The presumably exhausted McGraw shut down Houston in the bottom of the 10th, and the series was even again.

This set up an unforgettable finale. The Phillies led 2-1 until Houston tied it in the sixth against Marty Bystrom, then plated three runs an inning later off Larry Christenson, all with two outs. Nolan Ryan came out for the top of the eighth needing six outs to pitch the Astros into the World Series. He got none of them. Larry Bowa led off with a single to center; Bob Boone followed with an infield single; Greg Gross loaded the bases with a bunt single. Ryan walked Rose to force in a run that made it 5-3, then gave way to Joe Sambito, who induced a groundout to Keith Moreland that scored Boone to bring the Phils within a run. Ken Forsch relieved Sambito and struck out Mike Schmidt for the second out, but Unser came on to pinch-hit and singled in Gross to tie the game. Then Trillo followed with a two-run triple that put the Phillies ahead 7-5.

Houston managed to tie it in the bottom of the eighth against a presumably dead-on-his-feet McGraw, alternating singles and strikeouts through the first four batters before Rafael Landestoy and Jose Cruz stroked run-scoring hits. The teams traded zeroes in the ninth, but the Phils pushed across the game-winner in the top of the 10th when Unser doubled with one out and Garry Maddox doubled him home two batters later. Dick Ruthven worked a scoreless bottom of the inning, and the Phils claimed their first pennant since 1950. You know what happened after that.

Like the Phillies, the Astros returned to the playoffs the next season but lost their first-round series in five games. Five years later, they fell to the Mets in an NLCS nearly as hard-fought as the one in 1980, dropping one-run extra-inning decisions in Games Five and Six that ensured ace Mike Scott, who owned New York (and everyone else) that year, could not take the hill for Game Seven. Between 1997 and 2001, they won the NL Central four times, and lost in the Division Series four times. They dropped a great seven-game NLCS to the Cardinals in 2004, then beat St. Louis to win their only pennant a year later before getting swept by the White Sox in the World Series. A year after that, they were nosed out by the Cardinals again, only to watch St. Louis improbably win the championship; they haven’t gotten very close to the playoffs since.

They also now have to watch Roy Oswalt, arguably their greatest pitcher in a generation if not ever, take the hill for the Phillies every fifth day. And it probably wasn’t all that much fun for Astros fans to see Brad Lidge, the closer for those near-miss 2004-06 teams, fall to his knees in joy after striking out Eric Hinske to win the 2008 World Series.

So, sure: it’s difficult to see Pence, a career .287/.336/.484 hitter, scorch the Phillies to the tune of .330/.382/.681. Or Bourn, the ex-Phil, a .260/.328/.344 overall batter, torment his old club to the tune of .337/.372/.427. Or the Jeff Fulchinos, Yorman Bazardos and Felipe Paulinos of the world enjoying rare if not unique success against the Phillies. But none of that can be as tough as what the decades-long Astros fan sees when the Phils take the field: the ghosts of Del Unser and Manny Trillo and the rest of a team that twice trailed late in elimination games at the Astrodome, and twice came back to snatch extra-inning victories that arguably kept Houston from its first and perhaps best chance to win the title they’ve still never claimed.