Jeff Conine's run-scoring single in the eighth inning sparked the Florida Marlins' second comeback of the game as they beat the Astros, 8-6 before a crowd of 22,543 at the Astrodome.
The Marlins, under new manager Jim Leyland, were making a push for their ever playoff spot and assembled a formidable lineup. One of them was free agent pitcher Alex Fernandez, who started this game on his 28th birthday. The Astros were managed by a newcomer to the job, Larry Dierker. Shane Reynolds made the start for Houston.
The Astros grabbed the lead in the first. Second baseman Craig Biggio led off with a double and right fielder Derek Bell walked. First baseman Jeff Bagwell struck out while Biggio and Bell pulled off a double steal. Left fielder Luis Gonzalez popped out to third. Third baseman Sean Berry walked to load the bases. Catcher Brad Ausmus then hit a grounder to Florida second baseman Craig Counsell, who kicked it to let Biggio and Bell score.
Biggio's speed got the Astros another run in the second. With one out, Biggio singled to left and Bell followed with a single to center that Moises Alou could not throw back to the infield soon enough to keep Biggio from scoring all the way from first.
The Marlins bats finally came to life in the sixth. Left fielder Jim Eisenreich led off with a single. Shortstop Edgar Renteria followed with another single to move Eisenreich to second. Alou singled to score Eisenreich and send Renteria to third. Alou moved up to second on an error by Houston center fielder Chuck Carr. Third baseman Bobby Bonilla struck out, but right fielder Darren Daulton brought home the second run with a ground out to first. Left fielder Conine singled to score Alou with the tying run and catcher Greg Zaun got an infield hit to move Conine to second. Counsell atoned for his error with an RBI single to score Alou and give the Marlins a 4-3 lead. Carr made his second error of the inning on the play to let Counsell move up a base. Mike Magnante came in to relieve and he struck out Hernandez to end the innning.
The Astros retook the lead in the seventh and did it quickly when Bell and Bagwell hit back-to-back home runs.
In the eighth, Jose Lima was in his second inning of work for the Astros. Bonilla walked to lead off the inning. Daulton doubled and Bonilla stopped at third. That was enough for Lima and Russ Springer relieved. Conine singled to score Bonilla and Daulton to put the Marlins back on top 6-5. Zaun followed with another single and Dierker opted to bring in lefty Tom Martin to face Counsell. But Leyland decided to pinch hit with Gary Sheffield, whom Leyland was trying to rest. Sheffield singled to score Conine. Kurt Abbott came up to pinch hit for Fernandez and he singled to score Zaun. Martin struck out Eisenreich and then got Renteria to ground into a double play to finally end the inning.
Houston managed to get one run in the ninth off of Florida closer Robb Nen on an RBI double by Bill Spiers to score Gonzalez. The Astros left runners on first and third to end the game.
The Astros would win the weak NL Central with an 84-78, five games better than Pittsburgh. The Marlins won the wild card with a 92-70 record, nine games behind the Braves. The Astros were eliminated in three straight games in the Division Series by the Braves and the Marlins disposed of the Giants in three straight as well. The Marlins then went on to surprise the Braves in six games in the NLCS and won its first World Series in seven games over Cleveland, scoring a run in the ninth to tie the game and then winning in the 11th on an RBI single by Renteria to score Counsell.
The joy in Florida over the Marlins win was short-lived as owner Wayne Huizenga decided to slash the team payroll. Nearly every star was sent packing. Sheffield, Bonilla, and Eisenreich were sent to the Dodgers in exchange for Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile early in 1998 and Piazza was then sent off to the Mets and Zeile to Texas. Alou was traded to Houston. Devon White was traded to Arizona. Conine was traded to Kansas City. Kevin Brown was dealt to the Padres. Al Leiter was sent to the Mets. Nen was traded to the Giants. Hernandez hurt his shoulder in NLCS in 1997 and never pitched effectively in the majors again. The 1998 Marlins would go 54-108.
As for the Astros, they would win the NL Central four times in Dierker's five years as manager, but they never advanced past the Division Series, losing to the Braves three times and the Padres once. The Astros lost their first seven postseason series until they defeated the Braves in the 2004 Division Series. They won their first NL pennant in 2005, but were swept by the White Sox in the World Series.
Sources: Palm Beach Post, Retrosheet, Baseball-reference.com