Astros’ deal for Johnson launched Big Unit’s NL run of excellence
“We’ve never picked up a guy of this caliber for the stretch run,” Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell told the Associated Press. “We didn’t hit the Powerball, but we still won a lottery.”
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On July 31, 1998 – minutes before the midnight trading deadline – the Astros acquired Johnson from the Mariners for prospects Freddy García, Carlos Guillén and John Halama. Houston led the National League Central by three-and-a-half games on that day, but the trade instantly made them more than mere contenders.
“A player like that in a short series,” said Pirates general manager Cam Bonifay, whose team was hosting the Astros that weekend, “can turn a season into a championship season.”
Johnson’s contract was set to expire following the 1998 season. When he and the Mariners could not work out an extension, Johnson asked for a trade.
He pitched well for the Astros in the 1998 Postseason, but went a hard-luck 0-2 with a 1.93 ERA in two starts against the Padres in the NLDS – a series San Diego won in four games.
Following the World Series, the 35-year-old Johnson signed as a free agent with the Arizona Diamondbacks, who played their inaugural season in 1998. Johnson then embarked on one of the most dominant pitching stretches in history, winning four straight NL Cy Young Awards while leading the Diamondbacks to the 2001 World Series.
By the time Johnson had finished his career following the 2009 season, he had posted a 303-166 record, a 3.29 ERA (while pitching in one of the most offensively potent eras in history) and 4,875 strikeouts.
Following the trade to the Astros, Johnson won 170 games and struck out 2,662 batters in what amounted to 11-and-a-half seasons – the bulk of which came after his 35th birthday.
Johnson was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2015.
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum