The Houston Astros have had some memorable pitchers throw for them over the years.
Nolan Ryan, J. R. Richard, Roy Oswalt, Mike Scott, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Randy Johnson, Larry Dierker, Joe Niekro, Billy Wagner and Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel all pitched in an Astros uniform.
So the question is “What Astros pitcher is the only one to clinch a post season series for Houston?”
Now I am not including the one game playoff in 1980 nor the Wild Card Game of 2015. Just post season series.
You would think it would be one of those names above, or maybe a closer like Dave Smith or Brad Lidge.
The answer is “Dan Wheeler.” Among all those famous names, it is middle reliever Dan Wheeler who gets the honor. You can argue he isn’t even the most famous person NAMED Dan Wheeler! (There is a QVC host by that name.)
The native of Rhode Island played baseball for Central Arizona College before being selected by the then Devil Rays in the 34th round of the 1997 draft. Most 34th rounders don’t make it to the majors.
He did not exactly dazzle for Hudson Valley, Charleston, Orlando and Durham between 1997 and 1999. But the Devil Rays staff was thin enough that in 1999, he got the call to the majors.
As a testament to not only the steroid era but also the thin Tampa Bay system, he would get the call to the big leagues in 2000 and 2001, despite posting ERAs over 5 in Triple A.
In 2001 he found himself in the Atlanta organization and again struggled in Triple A. The Braves had plenty of pitching and he never got to the bigs that year. But the next year, with the Mets, he earned his way back to the majors but in 2004 found himself bouncing between Norfolk and Shea.
Little did he know how that season would end for him. In late August, the Astros sent a minor leaguer named Adam Seuss to the Mets for Wheeler, looking for a healthy arm in the pen for the final month. He pitched well and the Astros found themselves in the playoffs.
At that point the Astros had never won a post season series. And Atlanta was their October nemesis, ending Houston dreams of advancing 3 times. 2004 looked like it might be more of the same. Rafael Furcal hit a walk off homer in Game 2 and the Braves rallied in the 9th of Game 4 to decide a 5th and final game in Atlanta. Wheeler did not see any playing time over the first 4 games.
In Game 5, the Braves and Astros were in a tight 4-2 game going into the 7th when years of Houston frustration came to a head. A home run by Jeff Bagwell highlighted a 5 run outburst, giving them a 9-2 lead.
In the 9th inning, with the Houston lead expanded to 12-3, Astros manager Phil Garner gave the honor of closing out the series to a player who wasn’t even an Astro until late August.
Dan Wheeler came out and pitched a scoreless 9th, ending the game with a Chipper Jones fly ball to left.
The Astros, after 42 years of existence, finally won a playoff series. And it was Dan Wheeler who clinched it. Granted, Garner was probably giving closer Brad Lidge a breather after being worked to the bone. But the highlight was Wheeler’s.
In the thrilling NLCS against St. Louis, Wheeler made 4 appearances, throwing 7 shutout innings and earning the win out of the bullpen for Game 4 which tied the series at 2. The Cardinals would win the series in 7, but Wheeler established himself as a reliable member of the bullpen.
2005 would see him have a bigger and more memorable postseason highlight, arguably the greatest moment in franchise history.
Wheeler had his best season in 2005, throwing 71 games, pitching to a 2.21 ERA. Primarily a middle reliever, he saved 3 games and was a big part of the team that started slowly and caught fire down the stretch.
Houston won the Wild Card again and once again battled Atlanta. Wheeler made 3 appearances including throwing 3 shutout innings in the 18 innings Game 4 marathon. The Astros won that game, and the series, on Chris Burke’s home run. The Astros advanced to the NLCS.
Houston stunned the Cardinals by winning 3 of the first 4 games. In Game 5, Wheeler threw a shutout inning in the 8th to set up closer Brad Lidge in the 9th to clinch it. Houston’s Minute Maid Park was rocking to witness a pennant clinching for the first time in franchise history. Instead, Lidge served up the massive and dramatic homer to Albert Pujols with 2 outs in the 9th that gave the Cardinals the lead. The stadium was stunned and the Cardinals sent the series back to St. Louis.
In Game 6, Roy Oswalt earned his series MBP with 7 strong innings. The Astros bats came to life and with Houston up 5-1 in the 9th, normally the ball would be handed to the closer.
But with memories of Lidge’s homer still fresh in everyone’s mind, Garner gave the ball to Wheeler.
In the 9th, he struck out Larry Walker (in his final at bat) and veteran John Mabry. Mark Grudzielanek singled but any hopes of another Cardinals miracle comeback were dashed when Yadier Molina flew out to right.
The Astros, after all the near misses, after the agonizing NLCS defeats in 1980, 1986 and 2004, finally won the pennant.
And it wasn’t Clemens, Pettitte, Lidge, Oswalt, Nolan Ryan, J. R. Richard etc on the mound.
It was Dan Wheeler.
Wheeler did not fare as well in the World Series, allowing 3 runs in 2 innings of work. Lidge lost a pair of games and the White Sox swept the Astros out of the World Series.
He would pitch for 7 more seasons. Some years he was quite effective. Others not as much. He returned, around the time this card was printed, to Tampa Bay in time to be part of their unlikely run to the World Series. He exacted a little bit of revenge against the White Sox by earning a save against them in Game 1 of the 2008 Division Series. He would pitch in the ALCS victory against Boston and the World Series loss to the Phillies. In 2010, he made his final playoff appearance in the Division Series for the Rays.
He retired in 2014 after attempts with the Indians and Royals did not pan out and lives in the Tampa Bay area.
But Astros fans should long remember that 9th inning in St. Louis where the team reached the highest point they had ever climbed. And to date, Wheeler is the only Astros pitcher to close out a post season series… and he did it twice.