For the first three innings Wednesday night, Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr. couldn’t have been in more control of the D-backs’ offense. He retired all nine batters he faced on eight ground balls and one strikeout while throwing just 33 pitches and not allowing a ball to reach the outfield.
That’s what made McCullers’ second trip through the Arizona order so baffling. Weak contact gave way to consistent hard contact. As a result, McCullers allowed the first seven batters he faced in the fourth inning to reach and wouldn’t survive a frame in which the D-backs sent 14 batters to the plate and scored nine times to pull away for a 14-7 win over the Astros at Chase Field.
“It was like blood in the waters,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “Like sharks were surrounding. Like a feeding frenzy. That’s how this game happens sometimes, happens so quickly.”
McCullers, making his third start since having Tommy John surgery, couldn’t hold a 4-0 lead and gave up a career-high-tying eight earned runs in 3 2/3 innings. It was the first time the Astros gave up at least nine runs in an inning since they allowed 11 to the Rangers in Arlington on Aug. 19, 2013.
“It’s discouraging,” McCullers said. “The guys gave me a nice lead. I was really throwing the ball well. I was very efficient. My pitch count was down. I felt very locked in, and it was a good opportunity for me to go deep into a game and help the bullpen out and get us on and off the field. It kind of went south, obviously.
“It’s all part of it. I’ve had rough starts to seasons before. With the way I feel like I’m throwing the ball and the way I’m being able to execute and place the ball around the zone like I feel am right now, I feel there’s going to be a lot more great starts than poor ones.”
An Arizona team that had averaged 2.6 runs per game and had hit only two homers through 11 games, walloped four homers, including an inside-the-park homer by Kole Calhoun in the fourth. The Astros jumped to a 4-0 lead on a three-run homer by Kyle Tucker in the second and a solo homer by Abraham Toro in the fourth, both off starter Robbie Ray. George Springer and Yuli Gurriel also homered for Houston.
To make matters worse for the Astros, as the fourth inning spun out of control, they couldn’t get reliever Brandon Bailey loose in the bullpen quickly enough to rescue McCullers.
“The guy we’re getting loose was a starter [in the Minor Leagues], and he really didn’t know how to get loose as a reliever,” Baker said. “That’s the problem of having so many young guys as former starters [in the bullpen], they don’t know how to get loose very quickly. That just happened so fast. That was as quick as I’ve seen it happen ever.”
McCullers was discouraged that he gave up a lead, but less discouraged with his stuff than he was in his previous start, when he walked four batters in four innings. McCullers threw 44 of 61 pitches for strikes Wednesday but didn’t get a swing-and-miss on his curveball -- his best pitch.
“There’s some solid hitters over there,” he said. “I’ve got to make the adjustments.”
McCullers did take issue with the D-backs opening the retractable roof at Chase Field after the third inning, which was planned before the game. Chase Field is already considered a hitter’s park, and even more so with the roof open. Of the seven home runs that left the yard (not including Calhoun's), six came when the roof was open.
“There was some routine balls that kind of carried up there and got deep,” McCullers said. “It got very dry. I was trying to lick my fingers. I was warned I couldn’t do that. Obviously, COVID. I was having a hard time there in the fourth. Not an excuse. It is what it is. Balls were being hit, were routine popups and landing on walls. … But like I said, the stuff was there. I felt really good. So I’ll just keep moving forward.”