Eleven years before the 1991 season, the Astros and Phillies met in the NLCS. Even though it led to Philadelphia's first World Series title, that series is not widely remembered today; recollections of baseball around that time tend to focus on a few great teams (including the Royals, who faced the Phillies in the subsequent World Series), and the Astros are not one of them.
Remembered or not, the 1980 NLCS is one of the greatest playoff series of all time. It lasted the full five games (the LCS round was best-of-five until 1985), and four of the five contests went into extra innings. Three of them included at least two lead changes from the eighth inning on, often in swings of multiple runs at a time.
Just over a decade later, those two teams had fallen on harder times; their fortunes were looking up for the future, but both had losing records as of late August 1991. But on this particular date, they treated their fans to a performance that served as a belated encore to that fateful October week: Phillies 11, Astros 10 (10). The starting pitchers were Ryan Bowen for Houston and Terry Mulholland for the Phils; we've seen both of them before in 1991, and Mulholland, at least, would be seen again regularly by the fans of quite a few different teams over the course of the next decade and a half.
Houston got off to a promising start in the top of the first. Gerald Young and Rafael Ramirez opened the game with singles, and Jeff Bagwell walked to load the bases. Ken Caminiti followed with a two-run double, and one out later, Mike Simms grounded out to score Bagwell and make it 3-0. But the Phillies responded swiftly. Wes Chamberlain began the rally with a two-out single, and John Kruk and Dale Murphy walked to load the bases. Darren Daulton then walked as well, forcing in a run. Charlie Hayes did not walk; instead, he hammered the first pitch he saw from Bowen over the left field fence for a grand slam and a 5-3 lead.
The Astros came right back in the top of the second. With one out, Young walked and Ramirez singled. Bagwell struck out, but Caminiti singled Young home, and Javier Ortiz's single brought Ramirez in with the tying run and chased Mulholland from the mound. Steve Searcy was summoned to end the inning, which he did successfully.
Bowen was perfect in the second, as was Searcy in the third. The bottom of the third saw only one Phillie reach base - but that came on a go-ahead home run by Kruk. There was also only one runner in the fourth, and this time the runner didn't drive himself in; Braulio Castillo doubled and was left on in the home half of the inning. Houston finally put runners on against Searcy in the fifth, as Ortiz walked and Andujar Cedeno doubled, but Searcy stranded them at second and third. Dickie Thon led off the home fifth with a single, but was promptly caught stealing, and Bowen retired the next two hitters to end the inning.
Searcy recorded the first two outs in the sixth, but then gave up a single to Ramirez. A wild pitch moved Ramirez to second, and Bagwell walked behind him. Up next was Caminiti, who doubled on the first pitch of his at bat, scoring both runners and putting Houston in front 7-6. Joe Boever relieved and ended the inning, and Jim Corsi replaced Bowen and set the Phils down in order in the home sixth.
The top of the seventh saw Cedeno single and Tony Eusebio walk, but Boever left both men on. Corsi also gave up a walk and a single in the seventh (to Wally Backman and Mickey Morandini, respectively), but with two outs, Thon doubled to score both of them and restore the lead to the home team. Thon was thrown out trying for a triple on the play, extinguishing the remaining threat.
No dramatic game for the 1991 Phillies was complete without an appearance by Mitch Williams, and indeed Wild Thing was summoned for the top of the eighth. Ramirez and Bagwell greeted him with singles, but Caminiti hit into an unusual 5-4 double play, and pinch hitter Casey Candaele struck out to close the frame. After a spotless eighth from Rob Mallicoat, however, Houston tried again in the ninth. Steve Finley led off with a single and stole second. Craig Biggio drew a pinch walk with one out, and Luis Gonzalez was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Young flied out, but it proved deep enough to score Finley with the tying run; Ramirez then fanned to leave the go-ahead runs in scoring position. Mallicoat combined with Xavier Hernandez on a hitless ninth, sending the game to extras.
Mike Hartley took the mound in the top of the tenth, and it was almost like Mitch Williams never left. Bagwell was hit by a pitch to begin the inning, and moved to second on a wild pitch. Caminiti walked, and pinch hitter Jose Tolentino singled to load the bases with nobody out. Finley hit into a run-scoring force, and Cedeno added an RBI single that made it 10-8 in Houston's favor before Hartley finally stopped the bleeding.
Al Osuna was called on to preserve Houston's lead, and quickly got off to a bad start, as Thon doubled and Chamberlain singled. Kruk's flyout brought Thon home and bisected his team's deficit. Murphy then doubled, moving Chamberlain to third, and Daulton tied it with a sacrifice fly of his own. Dwayne Henry replaced Osuna at that point, and fared no better; his second pitch went wild, moving Murphy to third with the winning run, and his fifth pitch was grounded into left field by Charlie Hayes for a walkoff single.
Just how bananas was this game? Put it this way: The Phillies pitchers in this game had a WPA of -1.009. Only nine other games in 1991 so far have had one of the pitching staffs come out with a WPA of -1 or worse. And the Phillies WON the game, which inherently means that the Astros' pitchers had a WPA worse than theirs by a full .500. The pitching staffs combined for a WPA of -2.518, the worst of the year so far by a fairly giant margin.
Or put it this way. Ken Caminiti went 3 for 5 with a walk, scored one run and drove in five. And yet, not only was he not the most effective hitter of the day, he wasn't even the most effective hitting third baseman of the day; Charlie Hayes matched his 5 RBI with a go-ahead grand slam in the first and a walkoff single. Hayes ended up with a WPA of +.642, the highest of his career to date and eventually the second-best of his 14 year stint in the majors. He was one of six hitters who would exceed +.200 on the day - Caminiti, Jeff Bagwell, and Steve Finley for Houston, and Hayes, Dickie Thon, and Dale Murphy for the Phillies.
Or put it this way: There were runs scored in nine of the twenty half-innings included in the game, and all nine of those half innings resulted in the batting team either taking the lead or tying the game. If that's not a record, I want to see the game that holds it.
Taken all together, this isn't just a game that would have fit right in with the classic playoff series between these two squads - it would have been the best game of that series, and it's one of the best games of 1991 to date.