McCullers' early exit a rough start to road trip

September 5th, 2020

Warming up in the bullpen prior to Friday’s game, Astros pitcher didn’t quite feel right. He was having a hard time holding the ball and getting loose, and his troubles only continued when he took the main mound at Angel Stadium.

McCullers failed to record an out for the first time in his career, allowing all five batters he faced to reach while putting his team in an early hole. The Astros rallied to score three in the ninth inning to tie the game, capped by a two-out RBI double by , before falling to the Angels, 6-5, on a walk-off single by Shohei Ohtani in the 11th inning.

Afterward, McCullers, who missed all of last season following Tommy John surgery, insisted he wasn’t injured and was going through a phase that’s part of the overall recovery.

“Just dealing with a weird period right now, kind of started a few days ago," he said. "But I’ll be fine. My stuff wasn’t there. Physically was really the issue, and I think Dusty [Baker] didn’t want me to have to battle through that in this period and kind of save it for another day.”

The loss prevented the Astros, who went 3-for-24 with runners in scoring position (0-for-6 in extra innings), from gaining a game on the first-place A’s, who lost to the Padres. Houston remains two games out of the American League West lead.

McCullers allowed an infield single by Andrelton Simmons to start the first inning and then gave up Mike Trout’s 299th career homer. He walked the next three batters -- one of them scored -- and was pulled from the game by Baker after only 18 pitches.

“He didn’t want to come out,” Baker said. “He says, ‘Please don’t do this to me.’ I said, ‘No, I’m doing this for you and not to you.’ Obviously, nobody likes an exit. I mean nobody. But I had to think of him first and then the team.”

McCullers’ velocity was down on all his pitches. He averaged 92.1 mph with his fastball (94 mph career average), 82.3 mph on his curveball (84 mph average) and 84.5 mph on his changeup (87 average). Baker said the trainers told him McCullers was “going through a dead-arm period,” but he expects McCullers to start early in the Oakland series after Friday’s abbreviated outing.

“It’s a little disheartening. To feel good throughout the week coming off a really good start and feeling like you’re starting to catch your groove, and I just had a tough time the last few days,” McCullers said. “It’s not something that’s going to last forever. It’s part of coming back from TJ. I know it may be difficult to understand from the outside or even if you haven't dealt with this before.”

The discomfort McCullers was feeling Friday was at the back of the elbow and not at the surgery site, he said. During the surgery, doctors split his biceps and shaved bone down while removing old scar tissue.

“Like I said, it’s normal stuff that you kind of deal with when you're coming back from injury,” he said. “These are things you deal with. Unfortunately, it peaked with me at the end of my week throwing and bled into today, but I’ll be fine.”

The good news for Baker was rookie , making his Major League debut, gave the Astros 4 1/3 innings of relief to save the bullpen, holding the Angels to one run on one hit, and added 2 1/3 scoreless innings. Friday’s game was the start of a difficult stretch in which Houston plays nine games in seven days, including a doubleheader on Saturday.

“He saved us,” Baker said of Garcia. “Had he gone out there and spit the bit, I would have really been upside down for [Saturday]. The whole bullpen did an outstanding job. The kid saved us.”