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Notes: Astros' 2021 sked; McCullers on mound

@brianmctaggart
July 9, 2020

HOUSTON -- Major League Baseball released its 2021 schedule Thursday, and the Astros will open the 2021 season, the 60th in franchise history, on the road against Oakland with a four-game series from April 1-4. The home opener is scheduled for April 8, also against the A’s. For the second

HOUSTON -- Major League Baseball released its 2021 schedule Thursday, and the Astros will open the 2021 season, the 60th in franchise history, on the road against Oakland with a four-game series from April 1-4. The home opener is scheduled for April 8, also against the A’s.

For the second consecutive year, the Astros will play the National League West in Interleague Play, meaning the Dodgers will visit Minute Maid Park for the second year in a row. The Astros beat their former NL West rivals in the 2017 World Series. This year, Houston is playing 20 games against NL West opponents as part of MLB’s truncated 60-game schedule due to the coronavirus epidemic.

The schedule will feature 76 games against teams in the American League West, a division the Astros have dominated lately. Houston has won the last three AL West titles, winning more than 100 games each time. Oakland, which finished second in the AL West in each of the last two seasons, will be in Houston for nine games in 2021, including for the final three regular-season games (Oct. 1-3).

The Dodgers will return to Houston for a two-game set from May 25-26. During that same homestand, the Red Sox will visit for a four-game series (May 31 to June 3), and the Yankees will come to town for a three-game weekend series from July 9-11.

The Astros and the rival Texas Rangers will once again battle in the Lone Star Series, with Houston hosting the Rangers three times (nine games) in 2021. Two of those series will be on weekends (May 13-16, July 23-25). In each of the past three seasons (2017-19), the Astros have won the season series to capture the Silver Boot.

For information on the availability of 2021 tickets, email [email protected]. Fans can see the entire 2021 slate at Astros.com/schedule.

McCullers makes Summer Camp debut
In his first game-like action since Spring Training was shut down in March, Astros right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. threw 67 pitches in four innings in Thursday’s instrasquad game at Minute Maid Park. McCullers said he’s pleased with where he’s at physically with two weeks until the start of the regular season.

“It’s days like this when we’re six, seven days into camp and I’m able to throw four innings and feel like I could have thrown four more and maintain my velocity, getting up to 95, 96 [mph] and having command of my two best feel pitches, which is my two-seamer and changeup,” he said. “I got a couple of strikeouts on both of those pitches.”

McCullers was glad that he was able to make a couple of fielding plays and return to the mound and face the next hitters without issue. He’s happy he was able to make adjustments midgame. In the first two innings, his curveball wasn’t sharp, and he was able to tinker with it and get it down in the zone to get swings and misses in the third and fourth.

“Being able to go into a game and adjust when you’re in the game and also coming out of that simulated action feeling strong is a big positive for me,” he said.

McCullers missed all of last season following Tommy John surgery.

No fans in stands an adjustment
Thursday's instrasquad game provided a glimpse into what baseball will be like with no fans in the stands, which will be the case when the Astros play the Mariners on Opening Day on July 24. It was eerily quiet during the game, which meant you could hear players yelling at each other to and from the dugout.

For Josh Reddick, that meant some of his teammates delivering his familiar “Woo!” chant when he came to bat. For George Springer, it meant some amusing words of encouragement for teammate Michael Brantley when he was at the plate.

“Me and [Kyle] Tucker were laughing how it’s going to echo throughout the whole stadium,” outfielder Myles Straw said. “The other team is going to hear all those comments, which is good.”

Coronavirus prevention health and safety protocols were in place, which meant game balls were constantly being changed out and players were maintaining their distance from each other in the dugout. First baseman Yuli Gurriel put on his mask whenever a player reached first.

Astros pitcher Justin Verlander said it was the first time in about 25 years he had pitched with no fans in the stands.

“This is where the people that have inner desire to succeed and that competitiveness can thrive,” he said.

Astros manager Dusty Baker said the team hopes to have another instrasquad game on Sunday, and this time perhaps with Major League umpires on the field, too. Baker said the umpires would have to pass health protocols concerning the coronavirus before taking the field.

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.