By Kieran Darcy
Page 2

EDITOR'S NOTE: So many cities across the country have suffered embarrassing and/or excruciating sports moments over the years. Over the next 10 weeks, Page 2, along with ESPN2's "Cold Pizza," will count down the 10 Most Tortured Sports Cities in America. We begin the pain today with Houston -- No. 10 -- by putting Astros' fans back into the torture chamber of the 1986 National League Championship Series.

Four hours and forty-two minutes. Sixteen innings. One hundred and ten at-bats. And then Kevin Bass whiffed on a 3-2 slider from Jesse Orosco, and that was it. The dream was suddenly dead.

Jesse Orosco
Boston fans feel Houston's pain.

Houston has certainly suffered its fair share of tortured sports moments -- including a couple of downright devastating ones. The come-from-ahead overtime loss to Buffalo in the 1993 NFL playoffs, in which the Oilers blew a 32-point lead. Jim Valvano's joyous run onto the court to celebrate North Carolina State's upset win over the University of Houston's "Phi Slama Jamma" team in the NCAA championship game. The departure of the Oilers.

But the Astros' Game 6 loss in the '86 NLCS? That one just doesn't go away.

The Game 6 that year that everyone still talks about, of course, is Game 6 of the World Series. Mookie Wilson. Bill Buckner. Need I say more? In the years since, the dramatic events between the Mets and Red Sox at Shea Stadium have overshadowed the epic clash between the Mets and Astros that took place in the Astrodome on Oct. 15, 1986. But that World Series game was no more wrenching, no more heartbreaking to Boston fans, than Game 6 of the NLCS was to Astros' fans.

Actually, the battle that became that 16-inning war began a week earlier in Game 1. The Astros won, 1-0, behind a stellar performance by pitching ace Mike Scott. Scott, who won the National League Cy Young Award that season with an 18-10 record, a 2.22 earned run average and 306 strikeouts, pitched a complete-game shutout, striking out 14 and scattering just five hits.

But the Mets bounced back to win three of the next four. They won the second game, 5-1, but every other game was a nail-biter. Trailing 5-4 in the bottom of the ninth of Game 3, the Mets came back to win, 6-5, on a two-run home run by Lenny Dykstra off Houston's closer, Dave Smith. The Astros won Game Four, 3-1, thanks to another complete-game gem from Scott, who gave up just three hits.

And the Mets took Game 5 at Shea, 2-1, in 12 innings after a remarkable pitching duel between veteran flame-thrower Nolan Ryan and young phenom Dwight Gooden. Ryan struck out 12 in nine innings, allowing only one run and two hits. But Gooden did him one better, giving up one run in 10 innings of work.

A day later, the teams were back in Houston, on the field at the Astrodome for Game Six. And as good as the series had been up to that point, it got even better over the next four hours and forty-two minutes.

In the first inning, the Astros jumped out to a 3-0 lead against Mets starter Bob Ojeda. They held that lead all the way until the ninth inning, all the way until they were three outs away from Game Seven, with Scott scheduled to take the hill one more time.

Bob Knepper, the Houston starter, remained in the game to start the ninth. But after Mookie Wilson and Keith Hernandez each drove in a run, Smith came on again to try to save the game. Smith walked Gary Carter and Darryl Strawberry, both on 3-2 pitches, and former Astro Ray Knight's sacrifice fly tied it up.

We have liftoff!
Houston won its last major championship in 1995, when the Rockets swept Shaquille O'Neal's Orlando Magic to win their second consecutive NBA championship. But their most dramatic win, their most glorious sports moment, came the year before.

In the '94 Western Conference semis, the Rockets blew an 18-point lead in Game One against the Phoenix Suns, and a 20-point fourth-quarter lead in Game Two -- the biggest blown fourth-quarter lead in the history of the NBA playoffs. A newspaper headline after that game labeled Houston "Choke City."

But the Rockets bounced back to win that series in seven games. They disposed of the Utah Jazz in five. And they capped the season by coming back from 3-2 down in the NBA Finals to topple the New York Knicks.

These days, Houston sports are looking up. The Rockets are back in the playoffs under new coach Jeff Van Gundy (although they trail the Lakers 2-0), and they have a franchise center in Yao Ming to build around for the next several years. The Astros are expected to be playoff contenders again this season. And Houston has an NFL team again, the Texans, who went 5-11 in their second season last year but have several promising young players who could help them contend for a postseason berth in the near future.

The game remained 3-3 until the top of the 14th inning, when Astros' reliever Aurelio Lopez gave up a single run. But Houston center fielder Billy Hatcher, who'd hit just six home runs all season long, answered in the bottom of the inning with a home run to left field to tie the score once more.

In the top half of the 16th inning, the Mets broke through with three more runs and appeared to have the game, and the series, in their grasp. But the Astros had one last gasp. They put two runs on the board in the bottom of the 16th, and had the tying run on second and the winning run on first.

Bass stepped to the plate with two outs. He'd hit .311 with 20 home runs and 79 RBI during the regular season.

But on that 3-2 slider, he swung. And missed.

The longest game in postseason history was over, and so were the Astros' dreams of winning a world championship. Many of the 45,718 fans in attendance stood and applauded both teams as they left the field that night -- just as they had applauded both teams in 1980 when the Phillies broke their hearts in the fifth and deciding game of the NLCS, a come-from-behind, 8-7, Philadelphia win over the Astros in 10 innings.

Despite the team's loss, Scott was named the MVP of the '86 NLCS. And several Mets admitted that they'd dreaded the prospect of facing him again in Game Seven. That, of course, was no consolation to the Astros.

"It might sound crazy, but I still feel the sting [of losing to the Mets]," Astros reliever Charlie Kerfeld told Page 2 in 2001.

"It still hurts," said Bob Knepper. "It was the opportunity of a lifetime."

The Astros had to wait a long while; but eventually, they had other postseason opportunities. They made the playoffs in 1997, '98, '99 and 2001 -- but lost all four times in the National League Division Series. They won just two games, combined, in those four series.

This season might represent Houston's best shot since '86 to make the World Series. Ironically, one of the reasons for optimism is another player who suffered at the hands of the Mets in the 1986 postseason -- Roger Clemens. Clemens was the American League Cy Young Award winner and league MVP in '86, with a 24-4 record and a 2.48 ERA. But in two World Series starts, he didn't get a decision.

He left Game Six against the Mets with a 3-2 lead after seven innings, before New York rallied to win that game and Game Seven.

Clemens later collected two World Series rings with the New York Yankees, of course. And he started the 2004 season as if he's ready to pitch in another Fall Classic, too. So far, the 41-year-old is 3-0 with a 0.87 ERA. The Astros have a deep and talented pitching staff to go with a potent lineup. Optimism abounds.

So maybe Houston finally can erase the sting from 1986. But even if the Astros win the World Series, they should remember Game 6 forever. We all should. It was too good to forget.

Even if Kevin Bass whiffed.

You can e-mail Kieran Darcy at kieran.d.darcy@espn3.com.




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