Back in rotation, McHugh able to draw on relief

February 14th, 2019

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Their rotation was so deep last year that the Astros didn't need a sixth starter until their 126th game, when took the ball at Seattle. injured his elbow two weeks prior, and Houston was finally forced to give the ball to a starter who wasn't , , , or McCullers.

In the bullpen, meanwhile, was former 19-game winner and career starter , who became the odd man out of the rotation when the Astros traded for Cole in January 2018. McHugh was moved to the bullpen and flourished, posting a 1.99 ERA and 0.91 WHIP in 58 appearances.

With Keuchel and Morton leaving in free agency and McCullers on the mend following Tommy John surgery, McHugh is returning to his roots this year and is back in the Houston rotation. He said his experience as a reliever will only help him evolve as a starter.

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"At the end of the day, pitching is still pitching," he said. "I think last year was a pretty eye-opening experience for me, kind of expanding my capacity of what I think I can do as a pitcher and being able to hopefully take some of those things and use them back as a starter again and hopefully get better. I think it was good. I think it will only help me in terms of my career."

McHugh is one of pitching coach Brent Strom's great success stories. Plucked off waivers prior to the 2014 season, the once-fledgling McHugh went 48-28 with a 3.70 ERA and 567 strikeouts in 102 starts with the Astros from 2014-17, including a 19-win season in 2015.

"We have to remember, this guy was a really effective starting pitcher prior to taking one for the team and going to the bullpen and being really, really good down there," Astros manager AJ Hinch said.

This year's spring preparations won't be different. McHugh was built up as a starter last year, but when the Astros hit the regular season in full health in terms of their rotation, he was moved to the bullpen. He didn't flinch. He posted a 0.90 ERA in the first half.

"Any time you go into a job with the potential to not be good at it and you have some success, that always makes you rest a little easier," McHugh said.

McHugh's slider improved last year and developed more of a sweeping motion, one reason why he was particularly effective against right-handers (.135 batting average). He went away from his cutter and his velocity went up as well. At 31 years old, he was still evolving.

"I think the ability to go out and find a different level, be able to change your mindset a little bit and not have to think like a starter and being able to think like a one-inning guy, a one-out guy, it translates and it puts you in position to be able to do those things as a starter as well," McHugh said. "You pick those moments throughout the game where you need to draw on those experiences as a reliever, too -- to get one out -- and I was fortunate enough to be able to do last year."

Like the other locks in the 2019 rotation -- Verlander, Cole and newcomer -- McHugh will be a free agent at season's end. He says he "loves" the Astros, who resurrected his career, but isn't ready look beyond his return to the rotation this year.

"The Astros have been my team for the last six years, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for the club and for the organization and for the people in charge and the guys in this clubhouse," he said. "Obviously, we'll see what happens next year."