Nationals have chance to duplicate 2005 Astros’ remarkable turnaround

As Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt studied videos of Cardinals batters in preparation for Game 6 of the 2005 National League Championship Series - the biggest game in Houston franchise history - he got an unusual interruption.

Astros owner Drayton McLane came up to Oswalt and promised to buy him a bulldozer if he could pitch the team into the World Series for the first time.

The incentive worked.

Oswalt pitched seven strong innings and beat the Cardinals 5-1 in St. Louis, sending the Astros to the World Series against the Chicago White Sox. McLane bought Oswalt a $200,000 yellow bulldozer that Oswalt used to build roads and reinforce lake shorelines on his 1,000 acres near his home in Weir, Miss.

“I love driving bulldozers, and I’ve always wanted one,’’ Oswalt told me during an interview for USA TODAY that season. “It’s going to come in handy. I’ll use it a lot.’‘

The bulldozer is symbolic for the 2005 Astros, who bulldozed their way into the World Series after starting that season 15-30. The Astros were 26-38 on June 15 after getting swept in a three-game series by the Orioles in Camden Yards.

The Astros coming back from that deficit is rare. But this season, the Nationals have a chance to duplicate the feat.

The Astros and Nationals’ stories, rotations and lineups are similar.

The Nationals were 19-31 on May 24, and six games under (32-38) and 8 1/2 games behind on June 15.

Now, after a surging June, the Nationals are in the NL wild card race with a decent chance to catch the Braves in the NL East.

The Nationals’ biggest advantage over Atlanta is in their rotation, a key component for any second-half run to October.

In 2005, the Astros, then a National League team managed by Phil Garner, had a dominant rotation, a deep bullpen, and a balanced lineup of on-base percentages, speed and power.

Oswalt, the NLCS MVP, was the Astros’ bulldog, starting 35 games and pitching 241 innings with an ERA of 2.94. Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte - two pitchers who grew up in Houston - were at 1.87 and 2.39, respectively.

Overall, Astros pitching was second in the NL with a 3.51 ERA, behind St. Louis.

Astros closer Brad Lidge had 42 saves.

Lidge said the local newspaper got the team going:

“The biggest kickstarter was when we were 15-30 and the Houston Chronicle had a gravestone on the front page that said, ‘RIP 2005 Astros.’ It was a foolish thing to print and it ticked us off.” he said. “But it also made us realize we have to start winning immediately.’‘

The Astros were 11th in the NL in runs scored that season, but they had power, led by third baseman Morgan Ensberg’s 36 home runs. Craig Biggio and Jason Lane hit 26 each, Lance Berkman 24. Astros legend Jeff Bagwell spent most of the season injured.

The Astros ranked third in steals in the NL, led by Willy Taveras with 34.

Houston finished 74-43 in second place in the NL Central, 11 games behind the Cardinals.

The Astros won their final two games of the season against the Cubs and clinched the wild card on the final day.

Clemens pitched a 6-4 win on the second-to-the-last day of the season with Lidge getting the save. Then, in the season finale, the Astros won 3-1 behind Oswalt and Lidge.

Back then, there were no one-game wild card playoffs.

The Astros beat Atlanta in the NL Division Series in four games, winning Game 4 on a Chris Burke’s walkoff home run with one out in the bottom of the 18th inning in Houston. Brad Ausmus, now the Angels manager, hit a game-tying home run in the ninth. Clemens had four strikeouts pitching the final three innings in relief.

The NLCS had its drama as well.

The Astros in Houston were one out away from celebrating their first pennant with a 4-2 lead in Game 5 when the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols hit a moonshot home run against Lidge to give the Cardinals a 5-4 win.

The silence in the ballpark was amazing.

As the Astros flew to St. Louis for Game 6, teammates joked with Lidge that Pujols’ home run ball could be seen outside the plane.

Thanks to Oswalt, the Astros dominated the Cardinals at Busch Stadium in Game 6. Houston lost the World Series to the White Sox.

So far, the Nationals’ season mirrors the 2005 Astros. And who knows? Maybe history repeats itself in October.