Tampa boys light up Trop as Astros eye top seed

Tucker homers, McCullers dazzles as Houston sweeps Tampa Bay on road for first time

September 22nd, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG -- The celebration line of high-fives and fist bumps for Astros outfielder in the visiting dugout was capped by a hug from pitcher , who teamed up with his fellow Tampa native to send the Astros to their first sweep at Tropicana Field.

The synergy of the night -- two local boys doing good -- is symbolic of how well things are going for the Astros, who polished off a three-game sweep of the Rays with a 5-2 win Wednesday night, giving them 99 wins and pushing them closer to clinching the top seed for the American League playoffs.

“He’s a really good guy, great teammate,” Tucker said of McCullers. “He’s always wishing the best for everyone on the team. I love playing behind him, and I know he loves everyone else playing behind him, and he gets really excited for guys when they hit homers or get the winning run across and stuff like that. He was pretty pumped up right there.”

• Games remaining: 12
• Standings update: Clinched AL West
• Magic number for clinching AL’s top seed: 5

McCullers (4-1), making his seventh start of the season following a long recovery from a forearm injury suffered in last year’s playoffs, struck out eight batters and allowed two runs, two walks and six hits in seven innings. He threw 102 pitches -- his second-highest total of the season.

“I feel like the last two starts, I really feel like my stuff is where I want it to be, where I expected it to be,” McCullers said. “I’m a little impatient and stuff like that, but I knew I had to grind through the first couple of starts back and do the best I could. As I continue to get on the mound and game action and game work, [I knew] things would start to sync up, and that’s what’s happened.”

McCullers has gotten sharper with each start. He has walked seven batters in his past three, compared to 14 in his first four post-injury.

“It felt like he was back tonight,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “He got in trouble a couple of times, and he was throwing strikes with his fastball, changeup and slider. He was very sharp tonight, and you like to see him go seven like that. We tried to get his endurance up. He said, ‘Thanks for leaving me in there,’ but we wanted to leave him in here ‘cause we wanted to get him to that 100-pitch threshold, and he did it in seven innings.”

The top-end velocity hasn’t yet returned for McCullers, but he said, “The sliders and the offspeed and crispness of it late, especially the last two guys, it’s great to see because those are the times you have to go into the tank and get your best stuff, and it was there.”

McCullers left the game trailing, 2-1, before the Astros roughed up former Houston reliever Brooks Raley for three runs in the eighth, capped by Tucker’s Statcast-projected 440-foot two-run homer to right-center that landed atop the netting covering the tank holding swimming rays.

“I hit it well,” Tucker said. “Just threw a slider that kind of was left over the plate, and I put the barrel to the ball, and it worked out really well for us.”

The local storyline wasn’t lost on Baker.

“I’ve said many times, I like to play guys in front of their home folks because they tend to do better,” he said.

The Astros got contributions from non-Florida men, too. Catcher Martín Maldonado capped a 3-for-4 night with his career-high-tying 14th homer in the ninth, and closer Ryan Pressly recorded his 30th save of the season, extending his career high.

“You have to give them credit,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “There's a reason why they're pushing 100 wins and clinched the division. But they're a very talented team. I feel like we're a talented team, but we do need to do some things a little bit better.”

The Astros have won seven in a row and 11 of their past 12 on the road as they head to Baltimore for their final regular-season road series. Houston is 49-28 on the road overall.

“We want to go into the postseason and make another deep run and hopefully win a World Series this time,” McCullers said. “It’s not easy to win your division, and we do it a lot. It looks easy, but it’s not. Everyone in here knows what we’re aiming for.”