CHICAGO -- As Lance McCullers Jr. walked off the mound at the end of the seventh inning Friday, he let out a display of emotion not often seen by opposing pitchers at Guaranteed Rate Field this season.
He’d just gotten done striking out the side against White Sox hitters Brian Goodwin, Andrew Vaughn and Leury García, and with his night over, McCullers let it be known how fired up he was.
“I had seven [strikeouts] after six [innings]. I saw that on the iPad, and I said, 'Man, I'm going to go for . I'm really going to go for it here,’” McCullers said. “Striking guys out isn't something that's as important to me as it used to be, but when I was close and I felt like my stuff was still really just crisp, I really wanted to go for it.”
Those 10 punchouts were only part of a dominant outing for McCullers, who allowed just a single run -- extending his string of starts allowing two runs or fewer to six straight -- two hits and two walks as he led Houston to a 7-1 win over Chicago.
“He was nasty tonight,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “That's one of the best games that I've seen him pitch, as far as command and control and just using all his pitches.”
Two pitches into the game however, it appeared that the All-Star break wasn’t the best thing for McCullers.
Having entered the break on a streak of 11 straight games allowing three runs or less, McCullers gave up a first-pitch triple to White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson and then a first-pitch double to Yoán Moncada. Just two pitches into McCullers’ night, the Astros already found themselves behind.
Whatever rust might’ve accrued over the break, though, McCullers quickly brushed it off.
After the early blip, McCullers retired 20 of the next 22 batters he faced -- the only exceptions being a walk in both the second and third innings. Of the 59 strikes he threw (in 94 total pitches), McCullers picked up 31 combined called strikes and whiffs. He finished the game out with four consecutive three-up, three-down frames.
“The game started out two hits and two pitches and one run, and we were like, 'Oh, no,' because they came out attacking,” Baker said. “And then that was all they had.”
“He did a phenomenal job,” said outfielder Michael Brantley, whose fifth-inning home run inside the right-field foul pole extended Houston’s lead. “They went triple, double, obviously, in the first inning, and I don't know how many innings he threw after that, but he threw great. He settled down. He gave us exactly what we needed, especially coming back off a break. He was attacking the zone, getting us back on offense and did a phenomenal job for us tonight.”
Outside of his command and tempo, arguably the thing working best for McCullers all night was his slider.
A pitch he’d thrown for 24.8 percent of his pitches coming into Friday, McCullers went with the slider 41 times against Chicago and recorded called strikes or whiffs 34.1 percent of the time. Seven of his 10 strikeouts ended with his slider, four of them coming on swings and a trio coming looking.
“It's just become something for me that I honestly feel like I could throw it at will for strikes,” McCullers said. “I feel like I can locate it well. It blends so well off the two-seam that it's just become a weapon.”
Brantley’s dinger and a four-run top of the seventh gave Houston a cushion after a two-run third put the club ahead, but it was McCullers’ lightning-quick turnaround that started the Astros’ second half off on a high note.