HOUSTON -- The blueprint couldn’t have worked any better for Astros manager Dusty Baker had it come to him in a dream. You give the ball to Lance McCullers Jr., you get a few timely hits -- maybe a big homer -- and you play airtight defense.
There was no way things could go wrong for Baker and the Astros if they were able to check those boxes Thursday afternoon at Minute Maid Park. There was no way the White Sox would be able to compete, much less put any pressure on the Astros in Game 1 of the American League Division Series.
The Astros’ plan of attack for another late October run came off without a hitch behind 6 2/3 scoreless innings from McCullers and a balanced offensive attack that sent Houston past the White Sox, 6-1, for a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series.
“I think, today, everything went well,” said Astros designated hitter Yordan Alvarez, who went 2-for-3 with a homer and an RBI double. “Lance was spectacular, and the offense was able to respond to that and give the run support needed for us to win tonight.”
In postseason history, teams taking a 1-0 lead in any best-of-five series have gone on to win the series 101 of 140 times (72 percent). Game 2 is set for Friday at Minute Maid Park, where Houston is now 5-0 against the White Sox in 2021.
McCullers, who ascended to the role of ace this year after getting a five-year, $85 million contract extension in the spring, allowed one hit through six innings and was pulled after 104 pitches with two outs in the seventh. He gave up four singles, struck out four and didn’t walk a batter for the first time this year.
“You get the ball in Game 1, and your team is expecting this from you,” McCullers said. “They're expecting you to come out, have energy, attack the zone, give them a chance to win. Obviously, our offense was spectacular today, and they did a heck of a job with a tough pitcher in [Chicago’s Lance] Lynn, one of the best in the AL this year, and also with a really tough bullpen.”
Not walking any batters wasn’t an accident. McCullers, who led the Majors in walks this year, said he and catcher Martín Maldonado made it a focus in the pregame meeting to pound the strike zone and get deeper into the game. If the White Sox were able to hit his best pitches, so be it. They couldn’t.
“We really just decided we have our plan, but we just want to be in the zone and be overwhelming in the zone,” McCullers said. “So whatever pitch we decide to throw, we're going to try to make it quality. For the most part, maybe aside from a couple changeups and a couple heaters, even when pitches weren't in the zone, they had purpose, and they helped me out through the rest of the game. Spectacular job by our defense, by our offense and by the bullpen. It's good to win Game 1.”
When McCullers was done, he got a raucous ovation from the sellout crowd as he walked off the field. It was a moment he won’t forget and a moment that was years in the making. This was McCullers’ first playoff start at Minute Maid Park since Game 3 of the 2017 World Series.
“I was really just looking forward to this type of moment with this type of crowd in a big game like this,” he said.
The Astros got offensive contributions from up and down their playoff-tested lineup, though it was rookie outfielder Jake Meyers coming through with an RBI single in the second for the first run against Lynn. Michael Brantley’s two-run single in the fourth made it 5-0, and Yordan Alvarez walloped a Statcast-projected 411-foot homer to right-center in the fifth to send Houston on its way to a win.
“I think we did a great job as a team overall,” Brantley said. “In the postseason, it's not about one guy for the most part. It's a team effort mostly, when we have a lineup like we do and Lance ... and the bullpen threw well today. I think that's the important key -- to keep it simple and trust one another.”
Even in the details, the Astros were flawless. Jose Altuve’s nifty slide home in the second inning on an Alex Bregman grounder accounted for a run, Maldonado threw out a runner trying to steal in the second, right fielder Kyle Tucker made a nice catch at the wall and shortstop Carlos Correa fired an 88.2 mph throw to first to complete a key double play in the seventh.
“The little things are like stacking pennies,” Baker said. “You do little things, and it adds up to big things.”