The Astros were finally playing meaningful baseball games in September 1969, and they were on the heels of the Braves in the National League West. The franchise, in its eighth year of existence, was in its first true pennant race.
Trailing Atlanta by 3 1/2 games, Houston gave the ball to ace Larry Dierker on Sept. 13 of that season for a crucial Saturday-night game in Atlanta Stadium, later more commonly known as Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Dierker, in the midst of his finest season, was seeking his 20th win of the season, something no Astros pitcher had ever done.
All Dierker did was go out and hold the Braves scoreless for nine innings, matching zeroes with Hall of Famer Phil Niekro. Astros manager Harry Walker asked Dierker to pitch the 10th. And the 11th. And the 12th.
Dierker pitched 12 scoreless innings -- an unthinkable accomplishment today -- and allowed four hits, four walks and struck out five (Niekro threw 11 scoreless). Houston scored twice in the top of the 13th and was poised to get Dierker the win, but Astros reliever Fred Gladding gave up three runs in the bottom of the inning, and the Braves won, 3-2, in 13 innings.
Game to Remember
Starting pitcher Larry Dierker was one of the early great Astros/Colt .45s.
Larry Dierker Facts and Figures
Full name: Lawrence Edward Dierker
Game to Remember: Sept. 13, 1969 (Braves 3, Astros 2 in 13 innings)
Jersey number: 49 (Retired in 2002)
Primary Position: Starting pitcher
Born: Sept. 22, 1946
Birthplace: Hollywood, Calif.
Major League debut: Sept. 22, 1964
Years in Major Leagues: 14
Years with Astros/Colt .45s: 13 (1964-76)
Other teams: Cardinals
Key stats with Houston: 137-117, 3.28 ERA, 320 starts, 106 complete games
Claim to fame: After one season in the front office and 18 as a broadcaster, Dierker won four division titles in five years as manager (1997-99, 2001) and was named NL Manager of the Year in 1998. His .553 winning percentage is best in club history as a manager.
Did you know? Dierker made his Major League debut on his 18th birthday and struck out Willie Mays in his first inning of work.
What's he doing now? An author and occasional public speaker, Dierker remains involved with the Astros as a community outreach executive.
"It's the closest thing in my 40-plus years in baseball to a physical and emotional turning point," Dierker said. "We just stunk from that point on."
It was indeed a turning point for the Astros, who went 6-13 the rest of the way and finished .500 -- 12 games behind the Braves. It was a turning point for Atlanta, which finished 12-4 to win the division and eventually lose to the Miracle Mets in the 1969 NL Championship Series.
And it was a turning point for Dierker, too. He won his next time out four days later in San Francisco to get No. 20, but he lost his final three starts despite throwing three complete games.
"That was a momentous game for me, because it was the first year in Astros history we were actually a contending team in September, and that one game blew us right out of contention and seemed to launch them on a streak that took them to the NL West title," Dierker said.
Complete games are a rarity in this day and age, and pitchers almost never work past the ninth inning anymore. Even though Dierker threw 20 complete games in '69, his 12-inning effort wasn't one of them. He wasn't sure how many pitches he threw that day, but guessed it was in the 130-140 range.
"My pitches were pretty economical," he said. "I didn't feel tired in extra innings, and we had a chance to score in the 13th, and they had to pinch-hit for me."
The Astros, wanting to blow off some steam, blew off the team curfew that night, drawing the ire of Walker. Dierker, however, was allowed to stay out as long as he wanted after putting in 12 innings of work and getting nothing to show for it.
Despite throwing a no-hitter in 1976 against the Expos, Dierker's marathon effort against the Braves -- a lineup that included Hank Aaron, Felipe Alou and Orlando Cepeda -- remains etched in his memory more than any other game.
"For me, the thing that makes it probably more memorable is just the fact it meant something for me to get to try to get my 20th win, and it meant something for the team to have a chance to win the division," he said. "We all like to think we can do our best work when it's most important, and that was really my best work, and it was certainly the most important game of my whole pitching career."