'Fluke' hits spoil McCullers' quality start

April 25th, 2021

HOUSTON -- The weakest-hit ball on Sunday afternoon wound up doing the most damage against Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr.

With the bases loaded in the fifth inning of a scoreless game, David Fletcher hit a 48.5 mph roller that struck the first-base bag and bounced over the head of Yuli Gurriel, allowing two runs to score, which proved to be the difference in a 4-2 loss to the Angels at Minute Maid Park.

Those were the only runs allowed by McCullers, who pitched six innings on 106 pitches (61 strikes) in his longest outing of the season. Gurriel’s two-run homer in the seventh tied the game, but Shohei Ohtani gave the Angels the lead with a 440-homer off Luis Garcia in the eighth.

“I think he did great,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “If it wasn't for that long fifth inning, the 29 pitches, he would have certainly went into the seventh or completed the seventh.”

You could see the frustration in McCullers’ body language in the fifth after he gave up the two infield hits, but after the game, he was hesitant to make any excuses.

“Every time I say something about something, people like to run with it,” McCullers said. “You guys saw the play. You guys saw how those two balls were hit, the runs that came across probably should never have. It kind of sucks, because you look at the game and it kind of boils down to that one play. It is what it is, I guess.”

McCullers, who fell behind the seven hitters he faced in the fifth, began the inning by plunking Albert Pujols. One out later, José Iglesias hit a dribbler towards third base for an infield hit. The ball was just 77.5 mph off the bat and rolled 44 feet before McCullers fielded it. He put his hands on his hips in disbelief, but he came back to strike out Anthony Bemboom before Fletcher’s single.

“I don’t think I’ve seen a guy get two RBIs on that play,” Baker said. “Other than that, if he could delete that fifth inning, it was an unfortunate or unlucky inning for us.”

Gurriel said he had never seen anything like it in his career.

“It was incredible,” Gurriel said. “Fletcher is the kind the of hitter you always have to be ready [for], because he can hit any pitch and put it any place in the field, so you always have to be ready for it. It was just a fluke play.”

Iglesias' dribbler and Fletcher's roller accounted for two of the three hits allowed by McCullers, who was making his first start since April 14 against the Tigers. Well-rested, he threw his most pitches in a game since May 31, 2018, and he also became the first Astros pitcher other than Zack Greinke to throw a quality start this year.

“Obviously, I had a really poor start against Detroit and went back to the drawing board and figured some things out,” McCullers said. “Today, I felt, was a really good start. I’d give it a B-plus, solid B, 85. … I really feel like I’m going to have 31, 32 starts this year and over the course of a season, this type of start I can build on and be a good thing down the road.”

By losing Sunday, the Astros missed out on a four-game sweep of the Angels, but that didn’t stop McCullers from telling his teammates, “Really good series, boys!” in the clubhouse after the game.

“I felt like we could have won today, but three of four against an in-division opponent is always excellent,” he said. “Now we’ve got to take care of Seattle. Seattle is coming here for four, and we have to take care of business here at home and pick up some of those games we didn’t get on the road.”