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McCullers looks to reclaim first-half form

Astros righty struggled to close out All-Star season
MLB.com @RichardJustice

NEW YORK -- To bounce back from a tough game, the Astros are going to hand the baseball to one of the best starting pitchers in the game. As options go, it doesn't get much better than that.

Well, there's some unknown about that. What would these things be without some suspense? We'll get to that later.

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NEW YORK -- To bounce back from a tough game, the Astros are going to hand the baseball to one of the best starting pitchers in the game. As options go, it doesn't get much better than that.

Well, there's some unknown about that. What would these things be without some suspense? We'll get to that later.

View Full Game Coverage

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Regardless, the Astros remain confident after an 8-1 loss to the Yankees on Monday night in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series presented by Camping World.

Dress for the ALCS: Get Astros postseason gear

The Astros lead the series, 2-1, and history is on their side as well. Besides that, they've come too far to blink now.

"You go home, and you come back tomorrow and play again," center fielder George Springer said. "There's no secret to it. It's over with. We'll come out and see what happens."

Besides that, Houston still has its aces, Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander, lined up to pitch Game 5, and if necessary, Game 6.

Now there's Lance McCullers Jr. He'll get the ball in Game 4 on Tuesday in his first start of the postseason. If McCullers is really good, he could be a third ace to line up behind Keuchel and Verlander.

But if McCullers is not good, there's suddenly some questions. For three months this season, he was one of baseball's most dominant starting pitchers. That's the guy the Astros need McCullers to be again.

Things suddenly look a little less secure than they did before Monday as the starting pitchers behind Keuchel and Verlander have allowed 12 earned runs in 10 2/3 innings.

Right-hander Charlie Morton had a tough day at the office on Monday, allowing seven earned runs in just 3 2/3 innings.

Afterward, Hinch announced that McCullers would get the ball in Game 4. As Hinch said, McCullers missed so much time with injury that he really doesn't know what he'll get from him.

Video: ALCS Gm4: Hinch announces McCullers as Game 4 starter

It's a gamble worth taking, and McCullers didn't shy away from its importance.

"It's a big game for us," McCullers said. "It's a big game for this team. The Yankees have a great home record and are a great team. We've done a good job putting ourselves in a situation where we got up 2-0. We knew coming here there was going to be a lot of hard-fought games. It's a big situation to be able to pitch in and put us within a win of the World Series. Excited to get the ball."

When McCullers made the AL All-Star team this summer, he had a 2.69 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP entering July, both among the top five in the Majors.

"We believe in him," Hinch said. "I don't have to remind all you guys, he was an All-Star to start the year. He has some of the best stuff in the big leagues, and we believe in him."

Video: ALCS Gm4: McCullers Jr. on starting Game 4 of ALCS

Things came unraveled around the All-Star break. Because Houston had four other starting pitchers on the disabled list, McCullers attempted to pitch through a back injury. When he finally gave into the pain, he returned briefly and was back on the DL with right arm fatigue.

Now, even though McCullers' numbers weren't always pretty -- he had an 8.53 ERA in his final seven starts -- he believes he's as healthy as he has been all season. The Astros would be thrilled if that's the case.

"I've been feeling like myself a lot more lately," McCullers said. "Just preparation and the way my body has been feeling. I'm pretty excited to be at the best I've been and get the ball. I just feel confident with my pitches and my stuff again."

McCullers has pitched just once in the postseason, a three-inning, two-run relief appearance against the Red Sox in Game 3 of the AL Division Series presented by Doosan.

"Huge amount of confidence in Lance," third baseman Alex Bregman said. "He's an All-Star and has unbelievable stuff. We've got a huge amount of confidence going into [Game 4]. We can't wait. Today, the Yankees had a good day. The balls fell that needed to fall for them. Tomorrow, we'll bounce back and be ready to go."

What the Astros do not know is how good McCullers' stuff will be or how long he can go. That's why Hinch also has right-hander Brad Peacock, who was another starting option, lined up behind McCullers.

"I think that's the unknown," Hinch said. "It starts with setting the tone with Lance McCullers."

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

Houston Astros, Lance McCullers Jr.