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Astros out to make history their history

Astros out to put playoff history into the past

HOUSTON -- There has been a certain amount of loose talk over the years about the Houston Astros having been born with a curse. In the beginning, there was Apache Junction, in the Arizona desert, where Geronimo's warriors once roamed. This was in 1962, and the team was called the Colt .45s, in honor of the gun that won the West.

Possibly it was not wise that spring to train in the shadow of Superstition Mountain, where Indian spirits and the ghost of an old Dutchman were said to guard a lost gold mine.

No one takes such legends seriously, of course. We only know that the Colt .45s did not suffer any bad luck until the first inning of their first exhibition game, when their center fielder stepped in a hole and broke his ankle, ending his career.

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In truth, the early Colt.45/Astros were not good enough to have a curse. The hopeless New York Mets, their expansion twin, created a mystique by losing 120 games in 1962. Houston swept the Chicago Cubs in its opening series behind three southpaws: Bobby Shantz, Dean Stone and Hal Woodeshick. It was a giddy way to launch a franchise, but reality sank in rather quickly.

They hung on to finish eighth, ahead of the embarrassed Phillies and the last-place Mets, and did not have a team that won more games than it lost until 1972.

For most of their years, the Astros lost with regret, neither consistently good enough to be heroic or bad enough to be funny. Judge Roy Hofheinz revolutionized the game by erecting the first all-weather, indoor stadium, the Astrodome, prompting this writer to observe:

"That team, playing in that stadium, is like serving salami under glass."

The Astros eventually lurched into the playoffs in 1980, letting get away a three-game lead in the season's final weekend, then beating the Dodgers in a one-game playoff. It was a wildly exciting year with flash eruptions along the way. At the height of the pennant race, the Astros lost the dominating J.R. Richards, felled by a stroke. His exit, at the crest of his powers, affected the team for seasons to come.

But in the fifth and final game of the National League Championship Series, they led Philadelphia by three runs after seven innings with the magnificent Nolan Ryan on the mound. The Phillies won it in the 10th inning, 8-7. In the Houston clubhouse, Ryan wept. He was not the sole licensee. Tens of thousands of Houston fans joined in, not for the last time.

In 1986, lefty Bob Knepper pitched a two-hit shutout for eight innings against the Mets. The Astros were three outs away from tying the series with the unbeatable Mike Scott rested and waiting for Game 7.

Pinch-hitter Lenny Dykstra lifted a long fly ball that fell behind Billy Hatcher in center for a triple to ignite a three-run rally and tie the score. The teams battled from lunch to dinner, and in the bottom of the 14th, with Houston now trailing by a run, Hatcher socked a melodramatic, solo homer to tie it again at four.

Alas, in the 16th, the Mets put another three-spot on the board, with the fiendish Dykstra singling in one of them. The Astros got back two in their half, but Jesse Orosco struck out Kevin Bass with the winning runs on base to end what, at the time, was the longest game in playoff history. In this season's NLDS, the Astros defeated the Braves in 18 innings.

Three more times the Astros would be one elimination game away from reaching the World Series, losing twice to St. Louis in 2004, and once to the Cardinals in 2005, when Albert Pujols drilled a game-winning, three-run homer off Brad Lidge in Game 5, as the cheers and screams of joyous Houston fans literally stuck in their throats.

That moved the championship round back to St. Louis, where the Astros cast off all those years of bad vibes behind Roy Oswalt, earning them a berth opposite in the White Sox in the Series -- for so long so far away -- to settle all earthly matters.

Mickey Herskowitz is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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