The Runner Sports

Days Of Dominance, Pt. 1: Deconstructing 1986 Astros Rotation: Mike Scott, Jim Deshaies

Nolan Ryan was used to being the ace on a pitching staff. But, on the 1986 Houston Astros, who won the National League Western Division that year, he not only wasn’t the ace, he was happy to be a member of a starting rotation that arguably boasted four.

Mike Scott was the stopper, and rounding out that remarkable staff were southpaws Jim Deshaies and Bob Knepper. Like most memorable team moments in baseball (the ’27 Yankees and the ’16 World Champ Cubs, for example), this ’86 Houston rotation, who led the Astros to the NL Championship Series, didn’t just appear out of nowhere.

This Part 1 will focus on Mike Scott and Jim Deshaies, and how each came to be an Astro, culminating in a memorable 1986 season.

Part 2 dissects the career arcs of Nolan Ryan and Bob Knepper, and their contributions to the ’86 Astros.

And, while the Astros lost that franchise benchmark series to the New York Mets, 4-2, it remains locked into Houston sports lore, over 30 years later. MLB Network ranked the clinching 16-inning, 7-6 win for the Mets (in Game 6) as the fifth greatest game in 50 years.

Joining the by-now legendary Ryan was a Mets castoff who might have thought his career was over four years before this series, plus two lefties—one a former Yankees draftee, and the other, a 32-year-old who may have wondered if his career was on the wane.

Musicologists have spent considerable ink detailing how The Beatles got together. Like the Fab Four, the rainbow-wrapped ’86 Houston starting rotation didn’t just magically merge in one day, either….or by accident.

The Splitter and the Damage Done

Mike Scott grew up a few blocks away from the Wilson family (later, the young Wilsons were known to the world as The Beach Boys), in Hawthorne, California, and was 6 when the surf music legends formed in 1961.

A hoopster as well as a baseball player, Scott actually preferred basketball, and was a fan of the L.A. Lakers, in the Jerry West and Elgin Baylor era, both his favorite players.

Scott played baseball at Hawthorne High School, the same school Brian Wilson and his Beach Boy brothers attended in the late 50s. Scott wasn’t drafted after graduation, but attended Pepperdine University, 27 miles up the coast in Malibu, with a campus that overlooks the Pacific.

Drafted in the 2nd round of the 1976 Amateur Draft (37th overall) by the Mets, Scott made his MLB debut on April 18, 1979, a relief appearance in Montreal. At the time, Scott’s repertoire was limited to a near-95-mph fastball, curve, and slider.

A 14-27 four-year record colored a humdrum New York tenure, coupled with a 4.67 combined ERA, and a .301 batting average against. His combined strikeouts per 9 innings was 3.76 with the Mets, a K/9 he’d almost triple (and bedevil his former mates with) a scant four years later in 1986.

Danny Heep was a left-handed Texas native, an outfielder/first baseman drafted by the Astros two years after Scott was tapped by New York, in the same overall draft position as the pitcher, 37th.

Riding the bench for most of his Houston tenure from 1979-82, Houston GM Al Rosen swapped Heep for Scott during 1982’s December Winter Meetings.

“We were reluctant to deal Danny Heep. He was one of the finest minor-league hitters. He is a pure hitter,” said Rosen, at the time, according to a 12/10/82 UPI article. “But we were anxious to shore up our pitching.”

“We feel that Scott is just what we need in terms of a strong-armed right-hander,” Rosen continued. “He has been used by the Mets as a starter throughout his career, but we will have a better knowledge of his abilities after observing him during spring training.”

Mets GM, Frank Cashen, offered his perspective, at the time of the trade: “(Heep’s) a pure hitter. We didn’t want to give up Scott but the Astros insisted upon including him in the deal.”

New York Times scribe, Murray Chass, looked back in this February 1, 1987, article: “The Scott-for-Danny Heep exchange was a deal that wasn’t good for either side until Scott developed a split-fingered fastball. Heep didn’t develop and now is gone as a free agent.”

That brings us to Roger Craig, the Astros’ pitching coach in 1975 and ’76. Scott, coming off a 5-11/4.68 1984, went to then-Detroit pitching coach Craig.

According to Scott, in a February 4, 2002, interview with The Astros Daily’s Ray Kerby, “Rosen arranged the meeting; I spent a week in San Diego with Roger Craig for about an hour a day.”

“Roger was great,” said the Astros’ then-30-year-old fastballer, in a June 8, 1986, L.A. Times article. “We went over to Grossmont Junior College in San Diego and, after watching me throw, he said my mechanics were fine.

“Then he said ‘today we’re going to talk about the pitch.’ He meant the split-fingered fastball, and he gave me three things to remember. He said first I had to make sure I threw it over the top. Second, I had to throw it exactly like a fastball, and third, if I wanted to control the pitch better, I had to put my fingers closer together on the ball.”

In the article, “Scott says he was surprised by how easy it was to throw the pitch. All he had to do was spread his forefinger and third finger apart on the ball.”

Craig has always been self-effacing when others praise his role in teaching the devastating splitter, especially to those with the ability to master the unhittable missile.

Craig, in 1986: “It’s really not very hard to learn. When I was still pitching, guys like Elroy Face, Lindy McDaniel and Diego Segui threw the pitch and it was called a forkball. Some people say I discovered the split-fingered fastball. I don’t know if I did. I just discovered a better way to teach it.”

Thus, a pitch re-invented a pitcher. In 1986, Mike Scott was the dominant pitcher in the majors. His 18-10 record, with a 2.22 ERA and a 10 K/9, easily captured the NL Cy Young Award. He was also named to the NL All-Star team (with the game held, that year, in the Astrodome), was voted team MVP, and named NLCS MVP.

Armed with his wicked splitter (and, really, only his fastball to accompany), he spun a no-hitter against the Giants, in the Astrodome, on Sept. 25 to clinch the NL West title.

In a 2001 ESPN interview, Scott remembered that unforgettable day: “When I pitched the no-hitter, I remember that even though we were playing a day game, Cincinnati was playing earlier, and if they had lost, we would have won the pennant just by showing up. I didn’t want that to happen.

“I wanted to win the game while winning the pennant, and I wanted to do it at home — we were going on the road the next day. The first pitch I threw, I hit Dan Gladden in the back. I was trying to throw as hard as I could, and you don’t do that. It was a wake-up call to settle down.”

From Astros Daily: “I started thinking about the no-hitter when, in the 7th inning, (catcher Alan) Ashby told me, ‘we’re clinching the pennant anyway, just concentrate on the no-hitter.’ The toughest moment in the game came when Billy Doran made a great play behind me to a force a runner out at 2nd; I think that had the best chance of being a base hit.”

Video: Watch the final out in Scott’s Division-clinching no-hitter

In the 1986 NLCS, he won Games 1 and 4, pitching 18 innings and striking out 19, while giving up only one earned run and eight hits.

The Astros were facing elimination going into Game 6 against the Mets, who had taken a 3-2 series lead after Game 5. In a sense, the Mets, too, were facing “elimination,” as a Game 6 loss to the Astros would have meant that New York would again face an apparently unbeatable Mike Scott in a deciding Game 7 in the Astrodome.

Video: A snippet of Scott’s Game 4 mastery of the Mets in New York

The Mets won that Game 6 in sixteen innings—averting another Scott appearance—to win the NL pennant.

Mets catcher Gary Carter: “Mike Scott watched that sixth game from the Astros’ dugout, and he haunted us. He stuck in the back of our minds. No, sir, we didn’t want to face him the following day for all the marbles. The man had a power over us even when he was spending the game on the bench.”

About the NLCS series with the Mets, Scott recalls that “the Mets series was the most intense series I’ve ever been involved in. I’ve never been in the World Series, but everyone says that the playoffs before are even more intense. Both teams clinched pretty early, so we knew who was playing who. There was a lot of buildup. I knew the Mets were a good team. They had power, (Wally) Backman and (Lenny) Dykstra were tough and pesky in the one and two spots.”

Trivia Note: The date of that 16-inning NLCS-clinching game by the Mets over Houston was October 15, 1986, which is also the last time the iconic orange/yellow full rainbow jerseys were ever worn by the Astros.

Kid Lefty From New York State….Upper

Just 26 when the Astros made their Division-topping run in 1986, James Joseph Deshaies was the kid in a field of “grizzled” veterans into their 30s, with Nolan Ryan, at this time, pushing 40.

Deshaies was born a stone’s throw from the Canadian border in Massena, NY, 2,800 miles from Mike Scott’s California beach home. A strapping 6’4″, 220-pounder, Jim Deshaies was drafted out of Massena High School by the Montreal Expos in 1978, but elected not to sign. He played for the Dolphins of Le Moyne College, a private Jesuit school in Syracuse, prior to becoming a 21st round draft pick by the New York Yankees in 1982.

Deshaies was obtained by Houston GM Al Rosen from New York in September 1985, along with infielder Neder Horta (who never made it out of the low minors after 4 years) and RHP Dody Rather (a Houston native who also never logged MLB playing time), as the Yankees received 11-year Astro veteran, knuckleballing righty Joe Niekro in return.

With 7 innings logged with the Yanks in ’84, and just enough time left in the 1985 season to make two relief appearances for Houston (totaling 3 innings), the 1986 season, then, for all intents and purposes, was Deshaies’ rookie season.

He responded with a 12-5 record and a 3.25 ERA, with 144 IP, a complete game shutout, a .234 BAA, and a solid 8 K/9, ranking 20th in the NL with 128 strikeouts.

(Above): Deshaies (L) helps Kevin Bass carry Scott, celebrating Scott’s West-clinching no-hitter.

Deshaies finished his pitching career with Philadelphia in 1995, after short-lived turns with the Padres, Twins, and Giants. He quickly signed with Houston to be the ‘Stros’ TV color commentator in 1997, a post he continued through the 2012 season.

Sadly for Houston fans, Deshaies took his humor and extensive pop culture knowledge to the Chicago Cubs in 2013, to tackle the analyst/announcer job for them, and recently had his contract extended for the reigning World Champs through the 2019 season.

Mike Scott’s #33 jersey number was retired by the Astros in 1992.

Current Astros Rotation News: “Astros Have Charlie Morton, and Don’t Need Quintana,” Said No One Ever. ‘Til Now.

Brad Kyle

Brad Kyle

Brad Ramone with (L-R) Dee Dee, Johnny, and Joey Ramone, backstage at Houston's Liberty Hall, July, 1977.

Johnny, the Ramones' influential guitarist, who passed away in 2004 at 55, was an avid baseball and New York Yankees fan since childhood. He even once ranked baseball above rock'n'roll in a personal Top 10 List!

Like Johnny, my love for rock is only equaled by my love for baseball and my hometown Houston Astros, present and past!

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Brad Kyle