McCullers 'couldn't have felt better' in debut

In first competitive game since 2018, righty records two outs, one whiff across 16 pitches

March 2nd, 2020

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Never have 16 pitches been so meaningful for , who returned to the mound in a competitive game Sunday afternoon for the first time since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2018.

A grueling year of rehab and recovery in 2019 gave way to a new start in '20, with McCullers throwing two-thirds of an inning in the Astros’ 5-4 walk-off win over the Cardinals at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. He faced three batters, getting Kolten Wong to bounce out, giving up a double to Paul DeJong and finishing with a strikeout of Paul Goldschmidt on a curveball. He couldn’t have asked for more.

“I’m very happy with it,” McCullers said. “I felt really good. I executed mostly what I wanted to do. Out of the 16 I threw, really only maybe one or two that I didn’t execute kind of the way I was hoping to, pre-pitch. Really happy with just the way I felt overall and being out there again with the guys.”

McCullers, who had Tommy John surgery in November 2018 after pitching through the injury in the playoffs, threw all four of his pitches, including a handful of curveballs, which is his best pitch. His fastball velocity sat at 91 mph to start the outing, and it spiked at 94 mph on his 15th pitch.

“I felt my velo was much better than I thought it was going to be,” McCullers said. “It’s really not something I’m focused on or worried about. I feel I have a lot more in the tank, as far as that goes.”

Astros manager Dusty Baker said he had never seen McCullers pitch in person prior to Sunday.

“He was smooth with his delivery,” Baker said. “I hadn’t seen him pitch live in person, but he didn’t have any laboring about him. He wasn’t overthrowing, which I thought he might do from not being out there. His velocity was good. It was 91-93, and probably he had some more left in there. His breaking ball was good, his changeup was good. We were very satisfied, and I think he is, too.”

After losing Gerrit Cole to the Yankees, the Astros are counting on a healthy McCullers this year to join the rotation with Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke. McCullers has ace stuff -- he went 7-1 with a 2.69 ERA in his first 15 starts in 2017 and made the All-Star team that year -- but injuries have derailed him. He’s yet to start more than 22 games in a season.

McCullers came into the 2016 season with a right shoulder injury, and he changed his mechanics to alleviate the pain. That ultimately led to him spraining his UCL that season. He knew he was eventually headed for Tommy John surgery, and that became a reality when he tore his UCL in a game at Dodger Stadium on Aug. 4, 2018.

“It’s been a long time,” McCullers said. “It’s the first time I warmed up to start a game since [2018]. I just try to prepare like it was a normal start. I almost kind of forgot what it was like. I had to talk to [head athletic trainer] Jeremiah [Randall] and everyone and kind of ask what I needed to do again. But I’ll find my routine, and I’m just happy with how everything went today and how I felt overall.”

With his father, former Major League pitcher Lance McCullers, and wife, Kara, watching from above the bullpen, McCullers threw more pitches than usual while warming up before the game, joking that he knew his pitch count would be abbreviated in-game. The Astros wanted to hold him to 20 pitches, and he was sitting at 16 after striking out Goldschmidt. Baker didn’t want to push it.

“I got back to the point last November where I was facing batters, but it’s so much different,” McCullers said. “It’s very different in a game atmosphere, wearing jerseys and facing a different team with the umpires there and everything. It was very good to be out there. It was a great day, if you’re part of the rehab team, so to speak. I’m just really happy [with] how everything went. I couldn’t have felt any better.”

McCullers hopes to make five starts in Florida prior to the start of the regular season, likely getting his pitch count up to around 100 before camp breaks.

“Overall, just really happy with how it went,” McCullers said. “My body feels excellent, and I’m looking forward to my next start.”