Sending Astros to NL West title was 'thrill' for Howe

Sending Astros to NL West title was 'thrill' for Howe

Sending Astros to NL West title was 'thrill' for Howe
Needing just one win against the Dodgers in the final three games of the season to secure the National League West title, the Astros marched into Dodger Stadium in the final days of the 1980 season and lost three consecutive one-run games, forcing a one-game playoff for the division title the following day.

Game 163 turned out to be one of the biggest days in Astros history, thanks to a brilliant pitching performance by knuckleballer Joe Niekro and a couple of mighty swings of the bat by 33-year-old infielder Art Howe.

Howe went 3-for-5 with four RBIs against the Dodgers on Oct. 6, 1980, at Dodger Stadium, including a two-run home run in the third inning that gave the Astros a 4-0 lead. That was more than enough for Niekro, who spun a six-hit complete game to become the first Astros pitcher to win 20 games twice.

The victory gave the Astros the National League West title, sparking a huge celebration on the field and later in the clubhouse.

"It was the thrill of a lifetime," Howe said.

Had the Astros lost the one-game tiebreaker to the Dodgers, it would have been remembered as one of the biggest collapses in baseball. Losing a three-game lead with three games to play was difficult to do, but dropping the tiebreaker and missing the playoffs would have been nothing short of a choke.

Game to Remember
Art Facts and Figures
1. Full name: Arthur Henry Howe
2. Game to Remember: Oct. 6, 1980 (Astros 7, Dodgers 1)
3. Nickname: None.
4. Jersey number: 18
5. Primary Position: IF
6. Bats/Throws: Right/Right
7. Born: Dec. 15, 1946
8. Birthplace: Pittsburgh
9. Major League debut: July 10, 1974
10. Years in Major Leagues: 11
11. Years with Houston: 7 (1976-82)
12. Other teams: Pirates (1975-75), Cardinals (1984-85)
13. Key stats with Houston: .269 batting average, 22 triples, 39 homers, 266 RBIs
14. Claim to fame: Howe managed the Astros (1989-93), A's (1996-2002) and Mets (2003-04) following his playing career and compiled a record of 1,129-1,137. He led Oakland to three consecutive playoff berths (2000-02).
15. Did you know? Howe suffered a fractured jaw when he was hit by a pitch in Montreal on May 7, 1980. He only missed a week of the season.
16. What's he doing now? Howe lives in Houston and serves as occasional pre- and postgame television analyst for the Astros on FS Houston.
"All we had to do was win one of them to clinch the division, our first division," Howe said. "They wouldn't give in. We really felt good about 'Knucksie' being out there for us. He was shooting for his 20th win of the season and had a tremendous year for us that year."

The Astros had Champagne outside their clubhouse for the series against the Dodgers, and a large contingent of national media was in their dugout for the final three games of the season. When the tiebreaker rolled around Monday, the media had turned its attention to the Dodgers.

"I said to the guys, 'That's an omen. We're going to win this thing,'" Howe said. "They were the curse being in our dugout. We had the champagne and everything the first night and they tied it up the bottom of the ninth. It was really an emotional series. Thank goodness I had a good day on the last day of the year."

Indeed. Howe had a single in the first inning after the Astros had already scored a pair of runs off Dave Goltz, but he smacked a two-run homer to left field in the third to give Houston a commanding 4-0 lead. Howe was mobbed his teammates in the dugout.

"It was funny," Howe said. "It was 1-2 on me with two outs and a man on second and Goltz threw me a 1-2 curveball ... it was strike three. I kind of tried to duck it and I froze, and Doug Harvey was the home-plate [umpire] and he called it a ball.

"I thought, 'Wow, thank you very much.' Joe Ferguson went nuts. He was catching for the Dodgers. He was screaming at him, 'That's strike three, Doug!' I looked back at Doug and he looked at me and said, 'Art, don't take that pitch again.' Believe it not, he threw almost the exact pitch and I hit out of the ballpark. When I crossed home plate, Fergie was still screaming."

Howe had a two-run single in the Astros' three-run fourth, and they clinched the division to finish 93-70. It was a satisfying accomplishment for an Astros team that overcame the loss of All-Star pitcher J.R. Richard, who suffered a stroke in July and missed the second half.

"We were always fighting the Dodgers and Cincinnati, who were very dominant back in those years," Howe said. "It was a thrill really to finally come out on top. With the pitching staff we had, we just really believe we were the best team in baseball that day. If J.R. would have been there, I believe I'd be wearing a few rings right now. That's the way it goes."

The Astros flew across country to Philadelphia following the win over the Dodgers for the start of the 1980 NL Championship Series the next day. After four days of emotion-charged baseball in Los Angeles, the Astros split the first two games of the best-of-five series at Veterans Stadium before coming home to win Game 3, 1-0, in 11 innings.

With a raucous Astrodome crowd behind them, the Astros needed to win just one of two games to reach the World Series for the first time. But the Phillies pulled off a pair of dramatic extra-winning wins in Games 4 and 5, breaking the hearts of the Astros and a city.

"It was probably the best postseason series ever in my book, but the wrong team won," Howe said. "It was the only time I saw a clubhouse full of guys crying. We really believed we should have been there."

Brian McTaggart is reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.