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McCullers features ace-like stuff against KC

Astros right-hander flirts with no-hit bid for 6 1/3 frames
MLB.com @RichardJustice

Astros right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. has ace-like stuff and an ace-like makeup. At his best, he combines 94-mph power with a knee-buckling, bat-shattering curveball that might be the best in the game.

And then there are nights like Thursday when McCullers breaks out his best changeup. When that happens, he's capable of putting a game on his shoulders and making it look easy.

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Astros right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. has ace-like stuff and an ace-like makeup. At his best, he combines 94-mph power with a knee-buckling, bat-shattering curveball that might be the best in the game.

And then there are nights like Thursday when McCullers breaks out his best changeup. When that happens, he's capable of putting a game on his shoulders and making it look easy.

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When the Astros most needed him, McCullers couldn't have been much better in a 6-1 victory over the Royals at Kauffman Stadium. He didn't allow a hit for 6 1/3 innings and departed having allowed one run in seven innings. McCullers helped hold off Kansas City until his teammates scored five times in the ninth.

McCullers is Houston's ace, at least for the foreseeable future with Dallas Keuchel back on the 10-day disabled list with a pinched nerve in his neck. That's why what McCullers did on Thursday night was a big deal on both a symbolic and practical level.

"He was locked in tonight," said Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain, who broke up the no-hitter with a triple in the seventh and scored the only run McCullers allowed. "His stuff was pretty nasty. Nice two-seamer that started off the plate and back-doored it, or started on the plate and ran in on the hands. Filthy stuff tonight."

Months from now, this is one of those victories that may be long forgotten. On this day, though, it felt like more than just one more brick in the wall. The Astros began the day with a tired bullpen and having lost two in a row.

Isn't stopping losing streaks what aces do? McCullers helped the Astros put a nice finishing touch on an 8-2 road trip that sends them back to Minute Maid Park for a nine-game homestand that begins on Friday against the Angels.

Video: HOU@KC: Hinch discusses McCullers, offense in 6-1 win

This is another reason it mattered. Houston is 43-18 and leading the American League West by 12 1/2 games. But that lead suddenly looked different on Thursday when Keuchel joined three other starting pitchers -- Collin McHugh, Joe Musgrove and Charlie Morton -- on the DL.

This day felt like the first real moment of stress in a season in which the Astros have spent virtually the entire ride atop the AL West.

Before the game, McCullers told manager A.J. Hinch that he was good for 150 pitches. When Hinch laughed, McCullers countered: "Maybe 115?" Hinch only needed 91 from him.

"I felt like he has no-hit stuff every time he takes the mound," catcher Brian McCann said. "He's that kind of pitcher. He's a dominant pitcher. He's got dominant stuff."

McCullers said he was aware he had a no-hitter going, joking, "If you don't give up a hit to the very first guy, you're like, `I've got a no-hitter going.' It stays that way the whole game."

Injuries to the rotation have forced Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow to dig deep into his prospects list. He promoted right-hander Francis Martes, ranked as the club's No. 1 prospect by MLBPipeline.com, to help out an overworked bullpen. No. 3 prospect David Paulino will make his third start on Sunday.

Neither is likely to replace Keuchel. Houston is 21-3 in games started by Keuchel and McCullers. Keuchel is 9-0 with a 1.67 ERA and an 0.87 WHIP, leading the AL in all three categories.

When Keuchel was placed on the DL last month, the Astros confidently predicted he would miss just one start. Now, they're less certain.

Video: HOU@KC: Altuve belts a go-ahead two-run homer in 9th

So every time McCullers takes the ball, the game takes on a little bit of importance. He got the game into the eighth, and then Jose Altuve's two-run home run opened some daylight in the ninth against the Royals.

When McCullers walked off the mound, he was on the AL leaderboard in a string of pitching categories, including a 2.58 ERA (fourth) and a 1.06 WHIP (fifth). Only 22, he's making a strong All-Star case for himself in just his second full big league season.

"He's pitching like a Cy Young Award guy, pitching like an All-Star," Astros catcher Brian McCann said.

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.