The Astros finally turned the corner in 1979 and served notice to the old guard that they were gunning for the division title, which the Reds and Dodgers pretty much owned throughout the decade. With their unique brand of pitching and speed the Astros came within a game and a half of the Reds despite finishing dead last in homers. Every starter, except catcher Alan Ashby, had double digits in stolen bases. The 'Stros played small ball to perfection considering not one regular hit over .290 this was incredible. Of course anything can happen when you have great pitching. 29 year old J.R. Richard struck out an incredible 313 batters and posted an 18-13, 2.71 record. He completed half of his 38 starts. Overshadowed when it came to stuff, but not results was Phil's little brother, Joe Niekro. Joe (21-11, 3.00) had a career year. Ken Forsch (11-6, 3.04) and Joaquin Andujar (12-12, 3.43) rounded out one fine staff. Lefty Joe Sambito (8-7, 1.77) saved 22 when and if the starters tired. The Astros held on to first place roughly from mid May, until early September when the remnants of the Big Red Machine called on their experience and rolled the clock back for one last big run. Losing 3 of 4 to the lowly Braves during the last week of the season after taking 2 of 3 from the Reds ended their chances, but going this deep into the pennant race would pay huge dividends the following season.
Editor’s Note: Lots of handiwork was needed for the Astros set. Widenbauer, Baldwin and Roberge required extensive airbrushing from their minor league cards. Thankfully all 3 had on orange jersey. Baldwin’s came from a Tidewater Tides (NYM – AAA affiliate) card, so the cap color had to be changed. Wiedenbauer was wearing what looked like a mesh trucker’s cap that required a lot of work because there were white stripes on each side of the logo. Throop and Sprowl were colorized B&W shots. The Pete Ladd shot was a hidden gem that I found off of what looked like an amateur photographer’s site. Call it a captured “White Whale” if you will. The rest were supplied by Tony.
14 team sets down, out of 26. We have officially crossed the halfway point in the project.