Astros can't 'come through' for Lance (11 K's)

October 13th, 2020

In Games 1 and 2 of the American League Championship Series, the Astros received outstanding performances from their starting pitchers, but the club ended up with nothing to show for it.

Following a quality outing by Framber Valdez on Sunday, allowed four runs (one earned) on four hits with 11 strikeouts in seven innings in Game 2 on Monday at Petco Park in San Diego, but his efforts were wasted in a 4-2 loss to the Rays as Houston fell behind 0-2 in the best-of-seven series.

“It's very frustrating, especially Lance -- he pitched his butt off,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “He was better than [Rays starter] Charlie Morton or any of those guys over there. Nothing to show for it. He was on his A-game today.”

The Astros’ hurlers have fanned 26 Rays batters (of 48 possible outs) in two games, and the starters combined to allow three earned runs in 13 innings. One of those earned runs came from McCullers on Monday, as he became just the fifth pitcher in MLB history to take a postseason loss with at least 11 strikeouts and no more than one earned run allowed, joining Blue Moon Odom (1972 World Series Game 3), Bob Turley (1956 World Series Game 6), Don Newcombe (1949 World Series Game 1) and Chief Bender (1911 World Series Game 1).

“I texted him after the game,” shortstop Carlos Correa said. “I said, ‘Great performance. Sorry, we couldn't come through for you.’ … That’s the kind of game that you’ve got to win when your pitcher gives you a performance like that.”

Tampa Bay spoiled just two pitches out of the 100 that McCullers threw, with the first coming at the worst possible time for Houston. The right-hander could have been resting in the dugout instead of facing Manuel Margot in the first, but for a rare throwing error by second baseman Jose Altuve that extended the inning. Margot came to the plate and launched an 85.1 mph curveball over the center-field wall to give the Rays a 3-0 lead.

“I just didn’t pick the guys up in the first there,” McCullers said. “I felt like I made a pretty good pitch there in the situation. The ball just kind of found its way out of the park. My goal from that point on was to just give us the best chance possible and try to keep the game where it was.”

McCullers did just that. The 27-year-old retired 14 straight batters from the third inning into the seventh, including nine strikeouts.

"Lance goes out there and he outpitches me by a mile,” Morton said. “I mean, he threw one of the better games you can expect anybody to throw."

The performance was a nice rebound for McCullers, who gave up five runs (four earned) on eight hits, including three homers, in four innings against the A’s in Game 1 of the AL Division Series. What made the biggest difference?

McCullers mentioned before his start that he was looking to incorporate his changeup more often than he had in recent outings, as long as the situations were right. The right-hander threw the most changeups in an outing (28) since May 20, 2018, against the Indians and had seven whiffs, which was the most with the pitch since he had nine whiffs on May 14, 2018, against the Angels.

“That was probably my best pitch today,” McCullers said. “Everyone was making a big deal that I wasn’t throwing changeups, but I was just really waiting for the matchups to present themselves, and today it did and I threw a lot of good ones.”

The only other blemish for McCullers came in the seventh inning on his 99th pitch, as Mike Zunino launched a 96.4 mph sinker into the bullpen in center field.

“The pitch to Zunino, I’ll take that shot,” McCullers said. “I thought it was a good pitch. You know, backdoor two-seam on the corner. Mike just put a good swing on it.”

But as McCullers often says, he’s not there for his strong performances, he’s there for wins. The Astros had 10 hits and 16 hard-hit balls, but they still walked away with a two-run loss. Now it’ll be up to the next two starters to continue the hot-starting-pitching trend until the bats are able to find some holes.

Jose Urquidy, Wednesday’s starter, is coming off a rough outing against Oakland in Game 3 of the ALDS, having permitted four runs on five hits in 4 1/3 frames. Zack Greinke, who will get the ball in Thursday's Game 4, has been battling right arm soreness and is coming off a four-run outing in 4 2/3 innings against the A’s. But the Astros are far from counting themselves out against the Rays.

“We were down 0-2 in the World Series last year, and we had Urquidy and Greinke coming up next to pitch for us,” Correa said. “It’s not like we haven’t been here before. We’ve got to attack it like we did last year. We were able to come back and win three games in a row. I don’t think it’s impossible, we’ve done it before.”