NEW YORK -- No one knew what to expect. Few expected this. Except Lance McCullers himself. The young right-hander hadn't made a start since Sept. 30 and he hadn't won a start since beating the Mariners on June 24.McCullers pitched like he was the Astros' third ace over six-plus strong
NEW YORK -- No one knew what to expect. Few expected this. Except Lance McCullers himself. The young right-hander hadn't made a start since Sept. 30 and he hadn't won a start since beating the Mariners on June 24.
McCullers pitched like he was the Astros' third ace over six-plus strong innings in Tuesday's 6-4 loss in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium, with only two hits and one run allowed, on a solo home run from Aaron Judge to start the seventh. McCullers was lifted for reliever Chris Devenski, who along with three other relievers could not hold a 4-1 lead as the Yankees rallied to even the ALCS presented by Camping World at two games apiece.
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On a night when things did not go the Astros' way, one very imporant thing did: McCullers proved he can produce on the October stage, when they need him most. So far, Houston is 4-0 in games started by Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander, and 1-3 in games started by anyone else. And in that one win, Verlander played a pivotal role in relief of Charlie Morton, who hasn't gotten out of the fifth inning in either of his two postseason starts. Brad Peacock didn't get out of the third in his start in the AL Division Series presented by Doosan.
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So McCullers gave the Astros by far their best outing beyond their top two starters, and if Houston can bounce back in a deadlocked ALCS and advance to the World Series, this is a pitcher it can give the ball to behind Keuchel and Verlander. Facing the Yanks, McCullers looked like the 23-year-old first-time All-Star who put together a dominant early-season run before back issues twice sent him to the disabled list in June and July.
"This is the best I've felt in many, many months," McCullers said. "I've been trying to tell anyone with ears that. But it seemed like it was not being heard all the time. But I'm glad I got an opportunity to show the team that I feel good and I'm ready to go moving forward."
On Tuesday, McCullers, the heaviest curveball user among Major League starting pitchers, used his signature knuckle-curve extensively and with great effect against the Yankees. McCullers was even more extreme in Game 4 than in the regular season, when he threw 47.3 percent curveballs. Over half his pitches on Tuesday -- 43 of 81, 53.1 percent -- were knuckle-curves, according to Statcast™. McCullers threw only 31 fastballs by comparison.
"He was awesome," manager A.J. Hinch said. "And I'm really proud of him, because I know how important this start was for him."
McCullers left the game in line to become the youngest pitcher to win a postseason game in Astros franchise history. He didn't get that win, but he gave Houston everything he could, and that would bode well for its starting rotation in the Fall Classic.
"I haven't been healthy. I've been fighting a lot of things that many people wouldn't understand, and don't really know," McCullers said. "I knew what I was capable of. I knew what I expected of myself, and it wasn't a situation where I was like, 'Oh, wow, I'm super happy they're giving me a start, and hopefully I can make it through three,' or whatever the case may be.
"What I expected was what you guys saw. I expected to compete, be a bulldog and to go out there and try to do the best I could for as long as I could. A lot of people, I think, were doubting what I was gonna bring to the table. It's hard. I haven't been healthy. And I'm healthy again. I felt that way, I felt really good, so I'm glad that I was able to go out there and show that."
Does the way McCullers pitched, the way he felt on the mound in Game 4, give him confidence that he could go back out and do it again should he find himself starting in the World Series?
"Yes," McCullers said, and he strode out of the Astros' clubhouse.
David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler.