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McCullers 'really, really sharp' in IL return

@brianmctaggart
September 17, 2020

HOUSTON -- Lance McCullers Jr.’s return from the injured list went about as well as could have been expected for the veteran right-hander, who was terrific for seven scoreless innings on Wednesday night. That’s where the good news ends for the Astros. Rangers starter Kyle Gibson, who had allowed 24

HOUSTON -- Lance McCullers Jr.’s return from the injured list went about as well as could have been expected for the veteran right-hander, who was terrific for seven scoreless innings on Wednesday night. That’s where the good news ends for the Astros.

Rangers starter Kyle Gibson, who had allowed 24 earned runs in 26 2/3 innings in his previous five starts, was even better. He tossed a four-hit shutout, allowing three walks, with nine strikeouts in a 1-0 win over the Astros at Minute Maid Park.

Box score

“Solid effort,” McCullers said. “Sad that we couldn’t get the team W. That’s what we care about.”

The loss dropped the Astros (24-25) back under .500 and 6 1/2 games back of the A's in the American League West with 11 games remaining. Nearly half of Houston's losses (12) have been in one-run games. The Astros had two runners thrown out trying to steal second base and never got a runner to third.

“We weren’t getting any hits,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said.

The game was scoreless heading to the ninth inning when a leadoff single by Leody Taveras on a ball that first baseman Yuli Gurriel misplayed turned into a run. A two-out, two-strike RBI double by Joey Gallo off Ryan Pressly was the only run Gibson needed.

“Honestly, you almost feel bad because you're trying so hard to just get one run for the guy,” Gallo said. “Both pitchers pitched outstanding, but it's a fun game. I mean, the tempo of the game was outstanding. Just working quick. I feel like I ran out to the outfield, and two minutes later, I was running back into the dugout. So those are always the best games to be a part of when you're not standing out in the field too long.”

McCullers, who didn’t retire any of the five hitters he faced in his previous start on Sept. 4 -- and was subsequently diagnosed with neck nerve irritation -- held the Rangers to two hits and no walks and struck out eight batters. He improved to 3-0 with a 1.42 ERA in five starts at home this year.

“His fastball was up to 96 [mph] tonight and he had good command with it,” Baker said. “That’s the best he’s thrown since he had the no-hitter into the fifth inning [on Aug. 10 against the Giants]. He was sharp tonight -- really, really sharp. That’s the positive side of it. You love to see your pitchers throwing like that. We took him as far as we could take him, especially since he hasn’t been out there throwing much.”

A healthy and effective McCullers would be a huge boost for the Astros in the playoffs. The team is hoping Justin Verlander can return to the rotation at season’s end after making one start in July, and Jose Urquidy pitched seven solid innings in Tuesday’s win. Zack Greinke and Framber Valdez haven’t pitched as well lately, but have had solid seasons.

On Wednesday, McCullers relied heavily on his curveball, which has been one of the best in baseball. He threw more curveballs (40) than fastballs (39) and mixed in only seven changeups. McCullers got nine swings and misses on the curveball.

In his first eight starts of the season, he was throwing his changeup at a career-high rate (22.4 percent) while throwing his curveball at a career-low rate (35 percent). He was also throwing his sinker at a career-high rate (39.5 percent), but relied on the curve through seven scoreless against the Rangers.

“I would say I felt good with it early, so I stuck with it,” he said.

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.