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Rotation reassembled: McHugh impresses

Astros righty tosses 6 strong innings in 2nd start, providing glimpse of stabilizing potential down stretch
MLB.com

DETROIT -- Collin McHugh shook his head walking off the mound in the fifth inning Saturday night, having finally allowed the Tigers to scratch across a run. It wasn't much, but McHugh was disappointed in himself for letting Mikie Mahtook, who'd reached on a two-out walk, come around to score.

McHugh's self criticism in just his second start of the season, which wrapped up as a no-decision in a 5-3 loss to the Tigers, showed his current mindset. He feels healthy and capable of being a shutdown starter, which is good news for the Astros as they've finally reassembled the five-man rotation (including Dallas Keuchel, who returned from an eight-week absence on Friday) that was envisioned in Spring Training.

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DETROIT -- Collin McHugh shook his head walking off the mound in the fifth inning Saturday night, having finally allowed the Tigers to scratch across a run. It wasn't much, but McHugh was disappointed in himself for letting Mikie Mahtook, who'd reached on a two-out walk, come around to score.

McHugh's self criticism in just his second start of the season, which wrapped up as a no-decision in a 5-3 loss to the Tigers, showed his current mindset. He feels healthy and capable of being a shutdown starter, which is good news for the Astros as they've finally reassembled the five-man rotation (including Dallas Keuchel, who returned from an eight-week absence on Friday) that was envisioned in Spring Training.

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"I can't speak for Keuchel or anybody else, but personally it feels really good to be back," McHugh said. "And to be able to contribute to this team that's already done so many really cool things."

Technically he was already back, having pitched 4 2/3 innings of four-run ball in his debut July 22 against the Orioles. With better results on Saturday, to the tune of six innings, four hits and one run allowed, there was more reason to feel as if McHugh had actually returned.

"Very encouraged by his command, by his breaking balls, by his pace," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "Just being able to control the game right up until the very end."

After beginning the spring with dead arm syndrome, McHugh didn't see Spring Training action until just before the regular season. The official injury designation was an impingement in his right elbow. He made a rehab start for Triple-A Fresno on April 6, and was then shut down until June 30, at which point he made four more rehab starts ahead of his MLB season debut.

In that first start against Baltimore, he gave up just a hit and a walk with three strikeouts through four innings, before falling off in the fifth when a pair of two-out homers chased him from the game.

Video: HOU@BAL: McHugh fans Schoop for first K of season

He took similar stats to the fifth against Detroit, having allowed two hits with six strikeouts. After a two-out RBI double by Jose Iglesias that scored Mahtook, McHugh struck out leadoff hitter Ian Kinsler on three pitches to prevent further damage and hold what was a 3-1 lead at the time. The strikeout, McHugh's seventh, marked the most he's had in a start since Aug. 3, 2016.

"I knew that was a big out because you don't want guys on base with their big boppers coming up," McHugh said. "So to be able to make a pitch there was probably my highlight of the night, for me."

The most lethal parts of his mix were his curveball and slider, which combined to secure six of his strikeouts and garner swinging strikes on nine out of 43 pitches (21 percent), according to Statcast™.

"My fastball command wasn't great all day, but offspeed-wise I was able to throw it in the zone when I needed to and throw out of the zone when I needed to," he said.

With McHugh and Keuchel back, the Astros appear to have returned to the rotation they wanted all along. McHugh doesn't necessarily see it that way. He's glad to be back, but he acknowledged that the pitchers who chipped in to make starts -- such as Francis Martes and Brad Peacock -- could be ready again if needed.

Astros benefiting from Peacock's versatility

"We've had guys who have stepped up and been really good in really big situations," McHugh said. "We're gonna plug and play with the guys we have and trust the guys that we have going out there."

Jordan Horrobin is a reporter for MLB.com based in Detroit.

Houston Astros, Collin McHugh