About two weeks ago, he started swinging the bat. He hit off a tee for a few days and then took some light batting practice. It was encouraging. He hit a couple of balls out of the park. Then he went to Corpus Christi and DH'd for a couple of games. He got two hits and a walk, but he also struck out a few times and admitted he wasn't comfortable. Back with the Astros, he got a couple of at-bats in non-pressure situations. He drew a walk and struck out.
Then came Friday night and the Astros' first game against an improving Brewers team. The Astros were a half-game in front in the Wild Card race and the Brewers were only five games out. Roy Oswalt and Rick Helling locked up in a pitcher's duel in game one. Solo homers by Jason Lane and Lyle Overbay accounted for all the scoring as the game moved to the ninth inning. Earlier in the contest, the Astros had men on second and third with nobody out and failed to score. The Brewers had second and third with one out in the eighth and Phil Garner went to Brad Lidge, his closer. Lidge struck out Carlos Lee and Geoff Jenkins to end the threat.
Then the Astros got hits from Mike Lamb and Lance Berkman to start the bottom of the ninth. Again, there was frustration when Lane fanned and Jose Vizcaino popped up. With Lidge due and without a single veteran left on the bench, Garner signaled for Bagwell. It a desperate move, but it was the only move. The crowd greeted Jeff with an ovation, but realistically, it looked like extra innings.
Bagwell took a ball and fouled a pitch. The count was 1-1 when lefty Dana Eveland threw a 91-mph fastball up and out over the plate. Bagwell swung and hit a sinking liner over second base and the crowd went nuts. He did it. He actually got the game-winning hit with two outs in the ninth. The Astros errupted from the dugout. A cannon blast thundered. Fireworks lit the sky. The hometown hero was amidst a huddle of teammates, bouncing up and down like a bunch of bobbleheads.
My broadcast partner, Bill Brown, screamed so loud he nearly lost his voice. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. It was one of eight or 10 moments in my 40-year career with the Astros that I will never forget. It was as good as pitching a no-hitter, as good as winning a division championship on the last day of the season.
I suppose it was the stature of the player, Bagwell, and the poignancy of the moment that set the freeze frame in my mind. I have only seen one other regular season game that matched it. It was the day before the players strike in 1981. Nolan Ryan was pitching for the Astros in Philadelphia, and Pete Rose was one hit away from tying Stan Musial at the top of the National League hit list. Rose got his hit up the middle in the first inning and Musial vaulted over the box seat railing to congratulate him.
The next two times, Ryan struck Rose out with nothing but fastballs. The last time, with two strikes in the count, Rose fouled off four or five fastballs. Then Nolan dropped the hook on him and caught him looking. Rose slammed his bat and helmet. But by the time he got back to the dugout, he came to his senses. He hollered out to Nolan and when Nolan looked to the dugout, Rose tipped his cap.
Bagwell isn't the hat-tipping type, and he had a helmet on anyway. It's a good thing, because his teammates kept pounding him on the head for several minutes.