An Astro-nomical retrospective: 35 memorable Pirates-Astros games

Bum Phillips' zeal for kicking down metaphorical doors, Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson's claims about Terry Bradshaw's intellect, and Chuck Noll and Jerry Glanville's post-game handshake mano-a-mano proved that clashes between Pittsburgh and Texas can provide fertile ground for professional sports rivalry. Nevertheless, the 51 seasons of National League competition between the Pirates and Astros, which concluded with Sunday's 8-1 Bucco victory at Minute Maid Park, did not produce the sort of notoriety that those classic Steelers-Cowboys and Steelers-Oilers conflicts generated.

The Bucs and Astros spent nearly half of that time in separate divisions, limiting regular-season exposure, and their respective 1979 and 1980 divisional champions missed an NLCS rendezvous by a year. When the two franchises did realign into NL Central in 1994, their newfound status as divisional rivals coincided with the Pirates' disappearance from relevance, greatly reducing the stakes in what became as many as 18 regular-season encounters. Consequently, baseball lore will not long remember, the overwhelming majority of the 700 games (361 won by the Pirates) that the Bucs and Colt .45s/Astros played between May 25, 1962 and September 23, 2012.

Still, the teams did give us a handful of memorable contests, including a strong candidate for the Pirates' most beloved game since 1992; two of the greatest walk-off victories in PNC Park history; several plays from Roberto Clemente's canon of defensive brilliance; two of the most noteworthy visitor home runs ever launched in Pittsburgh; and a rainout like none other. And, for what it's worth, we'll always have that screwball 1997 NL Central pennant race. Inspired by this list on Red Reporter, I put together a retrospective of 35 notable encounters between the Pirates and Colt .45's/Astros, slanted in favor of Bucco wins, and ranked in highly unscientific order of memorableness (as Casey Kasem would say, "as the numbers get smaller, the hits get bigger..."):

35. July 16, 1972: Years before Matt Hague's torso and Tony Womack's face, there was Bob Robertson's hand: Astros' reliever Fred Gladding's pitch struck Robertson on the hand with the bases loaded in the tenth inning, forcing in the winning run in the Pirates' 3-2 victory in the first game of a doubleheader at Three Rivers. (The first-place Bucs also won the nightcap of the Bat Day doubleheader--a photo caption in The Pittsburgh Press described youngsters "rapping [the giveaway bats] in thunderous unison against the steel grandstand"--by an identical 3-2 margin.)

34. April 2, 2007: With Roy Oswalt cruising with a 2-0 lead and three-hit shutout in the eighth inning on Opening Day at Minute Maid Park, the Pirates turned to the longball to stun the Astros and a crowd that included former president George H. W. Bush. Nate McLouth's solo shot off Oswalt got the Bucs on the board in the eighth. Xavier Nady's bases-empty blast into the left-field pavilion off embattled closer Brad Lidge tied the game with two outs in the ninth. And Jason Bay's two-run homer off future Bucco Chad Qualls in the top of the tenth gave the Pirates a 4-2 victory.

33. May 21, 1985: Five days removed from his thirty-sixth birthday, Rick Reuschel celebrated his Pirate debut and return to the major leagues with 7 1/3 efficient innings of three-hit pitching. The last-place Bucs, struggling on all fronts (the two Bucco stories in the next afternoon's The Pittsburgh Press had headlines proclaiming "Tanner won't veto Candelaria trade request" and "Selling Pirates no easy matter"), held on for a 3-2 victory at Three Rivers.

32. September 1, 1980: After losing their eighth consecutive game--all played within the usually friendly confines of Three Rivers Stadium--in the opener of a Labor Day doubleheader with NL West-leading Houston, the Pirates arrested their decline with a 7-5 win in the nightcap. Rick Rhoden led the way with his arm (six gritty innings of four-run ball) and bat (two doubles, a two-run homer, two runs scored and three RBI). Somehow, the split allowed the Bucs to move into a virtual first-place tie with Montreal (who had played two fewer games) and Philadelphia (who had played four fewer games).

31. July 15, 2011: Jeff Karstens' ruthlessly efficient four-hit complete-game shutout led the Pirates to a 4-0 win over the Astros at Minute Maid Park. Karstens needed only 83 pitches to record 27 outs; since 2000, only three pitchers had completed games in fewer pitches. The win moved the Pirates into a first-place tie with the Cardinals; the Bucs had not been in first place this late in the season since 1997.

30. July 24, 1970: On the occasion of the Pirates' seventh home game at newly-opened Three Rivers Stadium, the Bucs celebrated "Roberto Clemente Night" before a Friday night game against Houston. Clemente received a literal truck-load of gifts, and then delighted the crowd of 43,290 with two hits, a walk, and two diving catches in the Pirates' 11-0 win. When asked afterwards if he thought the diving plays were foolish with the Bucs so far ahead, Clemente replied: "It's the only way I know how to play." Dock Ellis earned the victory with a complete-game four-hitter.

29. June 5, 1966: Willie Stargell battered the Astros for five hits in five at-bats-including two homers and a double-in the Pirates' 10-5 win at Forbes Field. The big day gave Stargell nine consecutive hits; he had slugged out four hits (including a game-winning three-run homer) against Houston on the previous day.

28. April 27, 1979: Down 3-0 before they even batted and 6-0 by the fourth, the Pirates waged an uphill battle throughout regulation at Three Rivers, finally drawing even at 8-8 in the bottom of the ninth when Dave Parker and Stargell hit back-to-back home runs off Joaquin Andujar. But the boulder ultimately fell off the mountain for good: after Stargell left the bases loaded with a tenth-inning strikeout, former Bucco Art Howe's eleventh-inning single off Ed Whitson scored former Bucco Craig Reynolds to give Houston a 9-8 victory.

27. April 25, 2007: By the mid-'00s, an overwhelming sense of ownership's stinginess left many Bucco rooters feeling irate. But the Pirates and Astros proved awfully generous with free baseball in 2006 and 2007, playing four games of fifteen innings or more. On this occasion, Adam LaRoche's two-out single drove in Jack Wilson in the sixteenth inning to give the Bucs a 4-3 victory at PNC Park. Ultimately, Houston used seven pitchers and the Pirates used eight, with future Astro Shawn Chacon (four innings) and winner John Wasdin (two innings) providing extra effort at the end. (The Bucs afterward indicated that LaRoche stood next in the line of succession to take the hill.)

26. May 7, 1974: The Bucs managed just one hit against Astros' starter Tom Griffin: Stargell's second-inning single. The Bucs managed just one run against Griffin: after third baseman Doug Rader bobbled consecutive two-out ground balls in the fifth inning, Griffin threw to third to catch Richie Zisk moving on a 3-2 pitch, but the ball sailed over Rader's head, allowing Zisk to score. And the Bucs managed to lose the game when Milt May, traded to Houston in the previous offseason for Jerry Reuss, tripled off Ellis to drive in Bob Watson with the winning run in the bottom of the eighth. The Astros beat the struggling Bucs 2-1 in the Astrodome.

25. September 17, 1997: The Pirates trailed the Astros by three and a half games in the NL Central race, and Houston's visit to Three Rivers for a two-game series felt like it could be the "Freak Show" Bucs' last stand (headline of Gene Collier's column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "It all comes down to this: 2 with Astros"). With an ESPN audience watching on a rainy night, the Astros knocked out Jason Schmidt with five runs in three innings and coasted to an 8-4 triumph. Houston reduced its magic number for clinching the division to seven.

24. May 25, 1962: The first-ever Pirates-Colt .45s game, played at Colt Stadium, offered a promising portent for the rivalry: the Bucs rallied from a 3-1 deficit to tie the game with two eighth-inning runs, and then won in the thirteenth inning when Bob Skinner tripled and pinch-hitter Johnny Logan singled him in. Elroy Face earned the victory with five innings of scoreless relief.

23. May 16, 1984: Nolan Ryan outdueled John Candelaria at Three Rivers, limiting the Pirates to five hits and striking out eleven in a 1-0 victory. Phil Garner's broken-bat double in the sixth inning drove in Enos Cabell with the game's only run. With the Bucs--considered a contender at the season's outset--floundering in last place and struggling to generate offense, Candelaria expressed his frustration with general manager Harding Peterson to The Pittsburgh Press: "We've got a bozo for a general manager. This is a three-ring circus. You can go out and ask any kid on the street. He knows what we need. We need hitting."

22. July 15, 1994: Three days after hosting the 1994 All-Star Game, the Pirates spotted Houston an 8-0 lead in the top of the second at Three Rivers. But the Bucs surged back against Astros' starter Greg Swindell and relievers Shane Reynolds and Todd Jones for an 11-8 victory. Highlights of the rally included a game-tying two-run double by relief pitcher Ravelo Manzanillo--who also earned the victory with eight outs of scoreless relief--and a two-run homer by the sole Bucco All-Star, Carlos Garcia.

21. July 6, 1972: Trailing 3-1 in the top of the ninth at the Astrodome, the Pirates tied the game when Clemente led off with a single against Griffin and Stargell connected on a two-run homer. Eight innings later, reliever Ramon Hernandez--who followed a yeoman six-inning effort by former Astro Dave Giusti--started a game-deciding four-run uprising with a double. The 7-3 17-inning victory, completed in 4:38, still stands as the Pirates' longest game in Houston.

20. April 23, 1965: Twenty-one-year-old Rusty Staub spoiled the Pirates' first-ever indoor game, singling off Al McBean to drive in Al Spangler with two outs in the bottom of the twelfth to give the rechristened Astros a 4-3 win in the Astrodome. The Bucs had rallied for three eighth-inning runs to tie the game-and McBean then maintained the deadlock through 4 2/3 scoreless innings-but Spangler's single, a hit batsman and Staub's hit did the Buccos in.

19. May 11, 1999: The Astros shelled five Pirates' pitchers for eighteen hits-including a team-record nine doubles-in a 19-8 victory at the Astrodome. Bucco manager Gene Lamont sent utilityman Keith Osik to the mound in the eighth inning, making him the Bucs' first position player to pitch since John Cangelosi in 1998; between retiring future Bucco Derek Bell on a pop-up and Paul Bako on a groundout, Osik allowed the final four Houston runs. The Astros' nineteen tallies represented the most runs that either team has scored against the other in a game; the twenty-seven combined runs made it the highest-scoring contest in the series.

18. May 19, 1989: Was it a split-fingered fastball? A forkball? Something more deviant? Regardless, the Pirates had no answers for Houston right-hander Mike Scott on this night at the Astrodome. Scott retired the first nineteen Bucco batters before a walk to Rafael Belliard broke up his perfect game, and then held the Bucs hitless until Glenn Wilson--an Astros' trade target at multiple junctures in 1989 until they finally persuaded Larry Doughty to swap him for Bill Hatcher in August--singles to lead off the eighth innings. Scott ultimately allowed just the Wilson single and two walks in a 3-0 Houston victory. (To show how unpredictable these matters can be, the Pirates banged out eighteen hits in a 17-5 win two days later.)

17. August 20, 1978: While making their improbable surge towards the NL East pennant chase in mid-August 1978, the Pirates hosted Houston in a six-game series, bookended by twin doubleheaders. The Pirates took all six contests, concluding with Jerry Reuss's nine-hit complete-game shutout-his first victory of the season-in a 3-1 victory in Sunday's nightcap. Ed Ott's two solo homers off Joe Niekro and a double steal by future Astros Phil Garner and Dale Berra's accounted for the Bucco scoring.

16. May 11, 1986: Jim Leyland's first Bucco team was deadlocked 3-3 with the Astros at Three Rivers when Bill Almon stepped to bat with one out in the eleventh inning against Charlie Kerfeld. Almon lofted a harmless-looking fly ball to short right field. Terry Puhl attempted a diving catch, missed the ball, and then slipped when trying to get back to his feet. Almon circled the bases for a stand-up, walkoff, inside-the-park home run. Pitching 3 2/3 scoreless innings in relief, Jose DeLeon earned the win to break a streak of eleven consecutive defeats.

15. August 31, 1990: Their four-game lead in the NL East of seven days earlier down to a game and a half, the Pirates took a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth in the Astrodome. Stan Belinda retired the first two Astros, but the twenty-seventh out proved elusive: Houston finished with five consecutive hits against Belinda, Bob Patterson and Bill Landrum, the final one being Glenn Wilson's game-winning single off Landrum. To compound the angst in Pittsburgh, the second-place Mets likewise scored three runs with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to beat San Francisco, reducing the Pirates' margin to a half game.

14. May 27, 2006: In the longest game by innings (eighteen) and time (5:49) in both the Pirates-Astros rivalry and PNC Park history, the Bucs tied the contest in the eighth inning (on Jeromy Burnitz's pinch-hit solo home run) and the seventeenth inning (on Jose Castillo's solo home run) before winning 8-7 in the eighteenth inning when Jason Bay--who had homered earlier for the fifth consecutive game--crashed into Houston catcher Eric Munson to score on Jose Bautista's sacrifice fly. Victor Santos, the Pirates' ninth pitcher, earned the victory with a scoreless eighteenth.

13. September 27, 2006: Four months after losing in eighteen innings at PNC Park, the surging Astros won a marathon in Pittsburgh, rallying from a 6-1 deficit to beat the Bucs 7-6 in fifteen innings. Houston tied the game with two outs in the ninth, and Brad Ausmus' sacrifice fly off Jonah Bayliss scored Biggio with the winning run in the fifteenth. Eight days earlier, Phil Garner's team had trailed first-place St. Louis by eight and a half games; with their eighth consecutive win-and the Cardinals losing seven of eight-the Astros now trailed by only a game and a half, with four games remaining in the season.

12. August 23, 1983: Tied for first in the NL East with the Phillies, the Pirates coasted to a 5-1 lead through eighth innings in the first game of a doubleheader at Three Rivers. Candelaria, however, surrendered a three-run homer to left-handed pinch-hitter Denny Walling, and the bullpen forces of Cecilio Guante, Kent Tekulve and Rod Scurry proceeded to allow two more runs--with the game-winning hit coming on Ray Knight's two-out, two-run single off Scurry on a 3-0 pitch--to lose the game. (The Bucs went on to drop the nightcap to Joe Niekro 2-1; it was the first time since 1962 that the Astros had swept a doubleheader from the Pirates.)

11. May 5, 1991: The Astros led the Pirates 3-1 in the top of the seventh inning at Three Rivers Stadium, and Art Howe called back Ken Oberkfell and sends up rookie Jeff Bagwell to pinch-hit against Bob Kipper. Bagwell, best known at that point as a) the return for Larry Anderson in a trade with the Red Sox a season earlier and b) Bill James' controversial selection to win the batting title that year, crushed Kipper's offering into the fifth row of the upper deck, making him only the third right-handed batter to reach Three Rivers' upper deck. The 456-foot blast spurred the Astros to a 6-4 win.

10. July 6, 2002: Thanks in part to back-to-back home runs by Lance Berkman and Bagwell an inning earlier, the Astros already had a 4-0 lead on Kip Wells and the Pirates when Daryle Ward stepped to bat in the top of the fifth with Bagwell on first, Berkman on second and Biggio on third. Ward promptly carved in his name in the PNC Park record books by driving Wells' pitch over the right-field stands and into the Allegheny River for a grand slam. The tale of the tape was an estimated 479 feet. Over a decade later, Ward remains the only player to reach the river on the fly. The Astros won, 10-2.

9. April 8, 2001: Aramis Ramirez had shown promise in his first three partial seasons in Pittsburgh, but the Bucco third baseman announced his arrival as a slugger on this Sunday afternoon at Enron Field with three home runs and six RBI. (He went on to hit thirty-four home runs in his age 23 season.) Joe Beimel made an emergency start for his major-league debut and pitched five innings for the victory in a 9-3 Pirates' win.

8. July 21, 1979: In the course of a twelve-wins-in-thirteen-games streak that transformed them from inconsistent also-rans to pennant contenders, the Pirates trailed Houston 5-4 heading to the bottom of the eighth at Three Rivers. To make matters appear even less promising, Houston manager Bill Virdon turned to relief ace Joe Sambito, who had not allowed an earned run in 40 2/3 innings. But Bill Robinson drove the lefthander's 0-2 pitch over the fence in right center, tying the game. Two outs later, Garner hit another home run into the exact same spot as Robinson, and Grant Jackson closed out the Astros in the ninth to clinch the win.

7. August 9, 1963: Because of an hour-long raln delay at the outset and a 15-inning Houston victory in the opener, the Pirates and Colt 45's started the second game of a Friday night doubleheader at Forbes Field at 11:20 pm. The "little hand" on the Longines clock pointed halfway between "two" and "three" and the "big hand" pointed to "six" when Clemente's bases-loaded single drove in Manny Mota with the winning run in the bottom of the eleventh for a 7-6 Bucco triumph. Not only did the 2:30 am end time break the record for latest-ending major league baseball game, it also represented the all-time latest-ending professional sporting event at that time.

6. August 27, 1965: With the Pirates surging into contention in a multi-lateral National League race, Houston's Bob Lillis attempted to cross up the Bucs' first-and-second bunt defense at Forbes Field by pushing the ball past Gene Alley's vacated shortstop position. Clemente, however, crossed up the Astros' strategy by hustling in from right field, picking up the ball near second, and firing to third to gun down Walt Bond. Bucco manager Harry Walker called it "the doggondest play I ever saw." Down 9-3 in the bottom of the ninth, the Pirates erupted for six runs against five Houston pitchers; in the eleventh, Andre Rodgers' single off Mike Cuellar drove in relief pitcher Al McBean with the winning run.

5. June 15, 1971: The first-place Bucs led the Astros 1-0 in the Astrodome, but with a runner on first and one out in the eighth, Watson lined a Steve Blass pitch to deep right. But Clemente, running full speed, leaped at the wall and made a one-handed grab with his back to the plate, just before the ball would have hit above the yellow line on the wall for a home run. Clemente suffered a bruised left ankle and swollen left elbow, and blood oozes from his left knee. Much of the Astrodome crowd gave him a standing ovation. The Pirates went on to win 3-0.

4. July 3, 2012: At the season's halfway point, the Pirates seemed poised to break their streak of nineteen consecutive losing seasons. Houston, entering the night with 25 losses in their last 35 games, knocked out A.J. Burnett and rolled to a 6-2 lead through five and a half innings. But the Bucs rallied, ultimately taking a 7-6 advantage on Garrett Jones' two-run, seventh-inning homer off Brandon Lyon. One strike from victory in the top of the ninth, Joel Hanrahan allowed the Astros to tie the game on Jason Castro's pinch-hit double, but that merely set up an even more dramatic ending: a recently-acquired journeyman named Drew Sutton led off the bottom of the ninth by driving Wesley Wright's pitch over the center field wall for the walkoff home run and an 8-7 victory. Sutton's display of joy while rounding the bases stands as one of the indelible memories of the "successful" part of the Pirates' 2012 campaign. The victory left the Bucs eight games over .500 for the first time since the end of the 1992 season.

3. June 15, 1976: Seven and a half inches of rain, the product of an all-day thunderstorm, turned Houston's roads into rivers. The Pirates and Astros reached the climate-controlled Astrodome with no problem, but Astros officials called off the game 20 minutes before the scheduled first pitch, out of a concern that fans would not be able to make it. (The umpiring crew did not make it.) The result was one of the most unusual postponements in major-league history.

2. July 28, 2001: In the middle of an otherwise dreadful day-night doubleheader (the nightcap was a 12-3 rout at the hands of future Buccos Tony McKnight, Ron Villone, and Octavio Dotel), the Pirates shocked the Astros by rallying for seven runs with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning to win the opener 9-8. Much-maligned Pat Meares ignited the rally with a two-run homer off Michael Jackson; Brian Giles (who earlier in the game had denied Vinny Castilla a four-homer game with a catch at the left-field wall) concluded it with a grand slam off lefty closer Billy Wagner.

1. July 12, 1997: Before the Pirates' first non-opening-day regular-season sellout audience at Three Rivers in over 21 years, a second-year pitcher from Mexico held the Astros hitless through nine innings and a rookie pitcher from Mexico added a hitless tenth. But it took a three-run pinch-hit homer in the bottom of the tenth by journeyman outfielder Mark Smith off John Hudek to ensure that Francisco Cordova and Ricardo Rincon's joint effort--the first Bucco no-hitter in almost twenty-one years--would not go in vain. The win left the Bucs .001 behind first-place Houston, even though both teams had sub-.500 records.

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