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Monday, October 17, 2005
Astros look to end 44-year World Series drought

Associated Press

To fans of the Chicago White Sox and other teams that think they've had long, excruciating waits to get back to the World Series, Houston Astros supporters have a message: At least you've been there.

No franchise has been in the same city without ever reaching the World Series -- much less, winning it! -- longer than the Colt .45s-turned-Astros.

And loyal Houstonians have tearstained rainbow jerseys to remind them of all the close calls.

Now in their 44th season, and ninth postseason, the Astros again were on the verge of breaking through Monday night. Houston went into Game 5 of the NL Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals with a 3-1 lead in the best-of-7 series.

"I just think it would be electric for the city," said manager Phil Garner, who played on the 1986 team that came tantalizingly close to the World Series. "People are just so wound up."

Their chances this time are pretty good, with Andy Pettitte starting Game 5 at home, and Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens ready to go if the series shifts back to St. Louis.

Yet lessons learned the hard way, primarily in 1980, '86 and 2004, have taught fans to believe it when they see it.

Here's a quick trip through the Astros' agonizing playoff history:

• 1980, NLCS vs. Philadelphia.

After signing future Hall of Famers Nolan Ryan and Joe Morgan, the Astros overcame ace J.R. Richard's career-ending stroke to win the NL West for the first time. Then Houston discovered how tense, exciting and frustrating the playoffs can be.

Against a Phillies team featuring Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton, the series went a full five games, the last four going to extra innings.

The Astros lost the opener, then won Game 2 with four runs in the 10th and took the next game 1-0 in 11. Houston was within five outs of winning each of the next two games, only to lose in the 10th both times.

Game 4 was particularly tough. In the fourth inning, pitcher Vern Ruhle appeared to have started a triple play but it was changed to a double play after about a long discussion between umpires and the league president. In the sixth, Gary Woods was called out on an appeal for having left third base too early on a sacrifice fly, killing a bases-loaded rally against Carlton.

"But it was our first time in the playoffs, so people were saying, 'You'll have more chances,"' team president Tal Smith, the GM in 1980, recalled last October.

• 1986, NLCS vs. New York Mets.

This was a magical season in Houston, especially for Mike Scott. Using his new split-fingered fastball, he threw a no-hitter to clinch the division title and won the Cy Young Award. He opened the playoffs by beating Dwight Gooden 1-0, then won 3-1 in Game 4.

The Mets dreaded facing him again in Game 7. They avoided it by winning Games 3, 5 and 6 in their last at-bat.

Game 6 was a 16-inning thriller that ended with Kevin Bass striking out with two men on base. New York won the others on a ninth-inning homer by Lenny Dykstra and a 12th-inning single by Gary Carter.

• 1997-99, 2001, NLDS disappointments.

Former Houston pitcher and broadcaster Larry Dierker took over as manager in '97 and oversaw four division titles in five years. But his teams went 2-12 in the playoffs, squandering the best years of franchise icons Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell.

"The '98 team was probably the most disappointing," Biggio said.

That year, Randy Johnson was acquired at the trade deadline and Houston won a franchise-best 102 games. San Diego ousted the Astros in four games, with Kevin Brown beating them 2-1 twice.

The Braves took them out in '97, '99 and '01.

• 2004, NLCS vs. St. Louis.

Despite signing Clemens and Pettitte and trading for Carlos Beltran, the Astros struggled into the All-Star break, costing manager Jimy Williams his job. Garner took over and guided Houston to a 36-10 finish, including 18 straight home wins, to claim the wild card on the last day of the season.

Led by Beltran, the Astros beat the Braves for their first-ever playoff series win, then got to Game 7 of the NLCS. They were 10 outs from the World Series with Clemens pitching, only to be disappointed again.

Asked during that NLCS what it would mean for Houston to finally make the World Series, the team's First Fan -- former President George Bush, often seen in the front row behind home plate -- said something that still rings true a year later: "It would be great for the city, great for the club and it would be great for all of baseball."