As the sixth inning came to a close Friday night, Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr. glanced up at the Tropicana Field scoreboard while he was walking off the mound and figured his night was probably over with his pitch count sitting at 97.
“I thought, ‘They’re probably going to pull me,’” he said. “I’m really happy they let me go out.”
McCullers came back out for the seventh and needed 14 pitches to retire the Rays in order and finish off seven scoreless innings in his longest outing of the season. He struck out nine batters as the Astros beat the Rays, 9-2, in a rematch of the 2020 American League Championship Series.
McCullers, who grew up in the Tampa area, allowed two first-inning singles and a sixth-inning double and walked three batters, but only one Rays batter reached third base against him. He threw 111 pitches, which ties for the second-most in his career and his most since throwing a career-high 117 on Sept. 22, 2016.
“I worked exceptionally hard and smart throughout the week in the recovery aspect and continued to push myself in the weight room, making sure I’m keeping that strength,” he said. “I told [manager] Dusty [Baker] after, ‘Thanks for letting me go.’ It worked out well. Because of the score and the way I was throwing the ball, I got that little extra leash.”
McCullers got the Rays to swing and miss 21 times, including a career-high 11 times with his changeup. He also threw the most fastballs he’s pitched this season (39), with 28 going for strikes (72 percent). That’s his highest strike percentage on fastballs this year.
“I feel like I was costing myself really good performances and getting deep into games and today, I just wanted to try to establish it,” McCullers said. “We worked on it a lot, and I felt good with it coming in and [catcher Martín Maldonado] let me know how good it was throughout the game. It was great to see the fastball in the zone, getting the ball on the ground and a lot of swings and misses on the changeup.”
Of the 26 batters McCullers faced, he threw 19 first-pitch strikes, including the final seven batters he saw.
“Strikes, man, strikes,” said shortstop Carlos Correa, who finished the night with four hits, along with teammate Michael Brantley. “I told him before the game, 'If you’re going to face 28 batters, I want 25 first-pitch strikes. That’s all I want from you tonight.' He threw strikes. His stuff is unbelievable. We all know that. When he attacks the zone the way he did tonight, he’s hard to hit.”
McCullers (2-1) has allowed two or fewer runs in four of his five starts, including his two most recent starts. He held the Angels to two runs and three hits in six innings Sunday, when he threw 106 pitches, before throwing seven scoreless against the Rays. That’s two earned runs in his last 13 innings.
“He didn't do anything that surprised us,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “We felt confident that he was going to lean heavily on his offspeed pitches, which he did, but he just pitches at the bottom of the zone with the curveball and the changeup combination -- that’s really tough to do much with any of those pitches. And he had it going tonight for sure.”